A health warning has been issued in the South Lake Tahoe area of California after wild chipmunks tested positive for plague.
The Tahoe Daily Tribune reports that Kiva Beach and the Taylor Creek Visitor Center have been closed for the remainder of the week due to these developments. Thankfully, human contact with the infected chipmunks has not been found yet.
“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,” Dr Bob Hartmann, Interim County Public Health Officer of El Dorado County, said in a statement.
The statement also advises that you apply insect repellent and wear long pants tucked into boot tops to minimize exposure to fleas.
This is not the first time the area has encountered plague – a South Lake Tahoe resident tested positive just last year, marking the first time the disease was found in the state for five years.
Plague is an ancient disease – dated back at least 5,000 years – perhaps best known for causing the Black Death epidemic of the 14th century, killing one-third of the European population. That was a long time ago – no one would blame you for thinking that plague’s moment in the sun had been and gone.
Whilst plague is rare among humans, with seven cases on average reported each year in the US, it is still found among rodents, largely in California and the southwestern part of the country.
The disease is caused by the particularly virulent bacteria Yersinia pestis, which is endemic in much of California – including El Dorado County, where South Lake Tahoe is located. Between 1927 and 2020, the state reported 64 human plague cases, almost all of which were associated with wild rodents.
As well as chipmunks, rodents that can carry plague bacteria include squirrels and rats. Y. pestis is usually passed from these animals to humans via the bite of an infected flea. Contact with bodily fluids or tissues from infected animals can also spread plague, as can contact with airborne droplets from an infected animal.
With this considered, officials have warned against contact with wild rodents in plague-endemic areas. In the event of unavoidable contact with these animals, symptoms to look out for include: fever, chills, headache, weakness, muscle pain, and swollen lymph glands in the groin, armpits, or limbs. These generally appear within two to six days.
Fortunately, if diagnosed and treated early, plague can be treated with antibiotics. And, just last week, a potential plague vaccine began phase 1 clinical trials, which could one day see plague banished among humans for good.
Some good news for us, but not so much for the chipmunks.