Officials evacuated and closed parts of the Angeles National Forest after finding a dead squirrel that was infected with bubonic plague, the BBC reports.
Scientists are currently examining the squirrel to see if it died of the disease or of other causes. Park officials are using insecticides on squirrel burrows to kill off any fleas, which is how the disease spreads from one animal to another. The Twisted Arrow, Broken Blade and Pima Loops of the Table Mountain campgrounds are closed until further notice, although hiking is still permitted.
The plague killed about a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century but is not nearly as active these days. Only four people have contracted the disease in Los Angeles County since 1984. This map from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows each case of the plague in the United States since 1970. About 80% were of the bubonic variety and most cases were not fatal, since antibiotic treatment is usually successful. In related news, researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany are developing an easy test to detect the plague in its early stages.
As you can see, there are two main clusters. New Mexico gets about half of all the human infections in the U.S. In the 1980s, the worst plague decade, it had slightly more than a hundred cases. Worldwide, most plague cases are in south central Africa and east Asia. People tend to get it while engaged in outdoor activities.
The Los Alamos Campground, located in the Angeles National Forest, has been closed after a ground squirrel found there tested positive for the plague. Let me say that again, it tested positive for the plague!
The park was officially shut down on Saturday and will remain closed for at least ten days. During that time, officials will dust the squirrel burrows in the area for fleas in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease. The plague spreads when infected rodents are bitten by fleas, who then go on to bite humans, passing along a bacteria that can bring on a severe fever, the chills, and a blood infection. In rare occasions, it can also lead to the pneumonic plague and possibly even death.
One form of the plague is the bubonic variety that spread across Europe in the 14th century, killing in excess of 25 million people.
But health officials have been quick to point out that there have been four cases of plague in Los Angeles County since 1984, and none of those were fatal. But just to be sure, they recommend visitors to the Angeles National Forest avoid squirrels and chipmunks while visiting the park, and wear insect repellent, preferably with DEET, to keep the fleas away.
When we consider the dangers of heading out into the wilderness to go camping, we usually think of bears or possibly exposure to weather conditions. I don’t think I’ve even once worried about the plague. Crazy!
[Photo credit: Benefactor123 via WikiCommons]