A chipmunk found at the Lake Tahoe Basin United States Forest Service (USFS) Taylor Creek Visitor Center has tested presumptively positive for the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, the agent of plague, according to an El Dorado County Department of Environmental Health press release Oct. 10. This is the second reported case of plague in a small animal in California in a week.
Last week, the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health reported a positive case in a ground squirrel collected at the Fern Basin campground in the San Jacinto Mountains. The campground is north of Idyllwild. Interim County Public Health Officer Dr. Bob Hartmann advised that the Taylor Creek Recreation Area might have an elevated plague risk. Fall visitors to area picnic spots and campgrounds and area residents should take precautions to protect themselves from plague, a disease transmitted by infected fleas.
“Individuals can greatly reduce their risk of becoming infected with plague by taking simple precautions, including avoiding contact with wild rodents and their fleas,” Hartmann said. “Do not feed rodents in picnic or campground areas and never handle sick or dead rodents. Also, leave your pets at home when visiting areas with elevated plague risk.”
The USFS is working with the El Dorado County and California Department of Public Health to educate the public. The Forest Service recommends people not to camp, sit or sleep on the ground next to rodent burrows or feed rodents in campgrounds and picnic areas.
Food and garbage should be stored in rodent–proof containers. In addition, it is recommended that you wear long pants tucked into boots and use insect repellent like DEET to avoid flea exposure. Pets should be confined, kept on a leash or left at home if possible, according to the statement. Pets should not be allowed to approach sick or dead rodents or explore rodent burrows and should be protected with flea control products. Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis. It is found in animals throughout the world, most commonly rats but other rodents like ground squirrels, prairie dogs, chipmunks, rabbits and voles.
Fleas typically serve as the vector of plague. Human cases have been linked to the domestic cats and dogs that brought infected fleas into the house. People can also get infected through direct contact with an infected animal, through inhalation and in the case of pneumonic plague, person to person. Yersinia pestis is treatable with antibiotics if started early enough.