Health Officials Investigating Possible Case of Plague in Georgia

August 19, 2015

ATLANTA - The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are investigating a possible case of plague in Georgia in an individual who may have been infected while hiking in California. Confirmatory testing is being done by the Georgia Public Health Laboratory (GPHL) and the CDC. The individual is hospitalized and being treated with antibiotics, and is expected to make a full recovery.

Plague is not endemic in Georgia but it does occur throughout the Western United States. Currently, there is an investigation into plague infected animals in Yosemite National Park, Sierra National Forest, and surrounding areas and preventive measures are being taken to reduce the risk of plague transmission. One human case of plague has been confirmed in California.

Plague is an infectious bacterial disease that is carried by squirrels, chipmunks and other wild rodents and their fleas. When an infected rodent becomes sick and dies, its fleas can carry the infection to other warm-blooded animals including humans.

Humans usually get plague after being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an animal infected with plague. Plague is not transmitted from human to human unless a patient with plague also has a lung infection and is coughing. Human-to-human transmission is rare and typically requires direct and close contact with the person with pneumonic plague.

Symptoms of plague usually appear two to six days after a bite and may include high fever, chills, nausea, weakness and swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpit or groin.

“Antibiotics are effective in treating plague, but without prompt treatment, the disease can cause serious illness or death,” said Patrick O’Neal, M.D., director of health protection for the Georgia Department of Public Health. “People who develop these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention and notify their health care provider that they have been camping or out in the wilderness and have been exposed to rodents and fleas.”

People travelling to areas where plague is most commonly found, such as the Western United States, can protect themselves from infection by avoiding any contact with wild rodents.

  • Never feed squirrels, chipmunks or other rodents and never touch sick or dead rodents.
  • Avoid walking or camping near rodent burrows.
  • Wear long pants tucked into socks or boot tops to reduce exposure to fleas.
  • Spray insect repellent containing DEET on socks and pant cuffs to reduce exposure to fleas.
  • Keep wild rodents out of homes, trailers, and outbuildings and away from pets.

Plague is known for killing millions of people in Europe during the Middle Ages. Plague was first introduced into the United States in 1900. Between 1900 and 2012, 1006 confirmed or probable human plague cases occurred in the United States. There has never been a recorded case of human plague in Georgia.

In addition to the CDC, Georgia DPH is working on this investigation with the California Department of Health, the National Parks Service and Yosemite National Park.

Additional information about plague can be found at cdc.gov/plague.