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Deadly Bubonic Plague Discovered In U.S. Fleas, Animals

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Fleas that carry the bacteria that causes the bubonic plague – also known as Black Death — have been found in Arizona, state officials there say.

The parasitic insects are believed to have come from a nature preserve near a water treatment plant in Flagstaff. The public first learned about the plague-infested fleas following tests on prairie dogs who had died at Picture Canyon, near Flagstaff. The disease caused by the plague fleas can reportedly demolish 90 percent of the population in a prairie dog colony very quickly – and it can be deadly in humans, too. It killed 100 million people in the 14th century, although modern education and technology has made it less deadly.

The fleas in Arizona that tested positive for the bacteria (Yersinia pestis) could cause the highly contagious and deadly disease to spread quickly – from prairie dogs to humans. When the animal host for the plague flea dies, the insect begins looking for more blood elsewhere.

Approximately 2,000 humans become afflicted with the plague each year. Most modern-day plague cases are present in the sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar region, according to World Health Organization statistics, although it does affect people in the United States, too. The mortality rate for humans is about 10 percent.

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The plague, also known as the Black Death, is typically carried by rodents and fleas. The mass of prairie dog deaths alerted authorities to the potential of plague-infested fleas, UPI reported.

“A person can get plague by coming in direct contact with blood or tissues of infected rodents, rabbits or carnivores, such as during the skinning of game,” the Arizona Department of Health Services said. “The bacteria can enter through an open cut or scrape in the skin, or through the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth.”

Residents and visitors to the southwestern United States have been warned to remain watchful for potential disease-carrying rodents while camping in the region. Squirrels are also potential carriers of the plague fleas.

“Most human plague infections initially involve the lymph nodes (this is the bubonic form),” the Arizona Health Department said. “Patients with this kind of plague do not represent a risk of transmission to other people. In some people, the plague bacteria can move into the lungs (pneumonic plague). A cough or sneeze from a person with this type of plague illness can spread the disease directly to other people.”

The disease can be treated with antibiotics if the infection is detected quickly enough by doctors.

This is not the first time the region has faced such a public health risk from the bubonic plague. Arizona, along with New Mexico and Colorado, experiences several plague cases annually. An Oregon man was infected with the plague when his cat bit him as he tried to dislodge a partially eaten mouse from its throat, UPI reported. The man ultimately had to have multiple fingers and toes amputated.

The state health department said symptoms often include:

  • Fever.
  • Headache.
  • Pain or swelling in the groin, armpit or neck area.
  • Weakness.
  • Nausea (occasionally).

Symptoms appear 2-6 days after exposure.

Insecticide has been sprayed in prairie dog burrows in Picture Canyon, Arizona, in an effort to stop the spread of the plague.

The last plague epidemic in America occurred during 1924-25 in the Los Angeles area.

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