FORT COLLINS, Colo. (CBS4) – A community in Larimer County is in mourning after a rare strain of the plague took the life of a teen. Health department investigators believe the boy contracted the plague from fleas on a dead rodent.
Taylor Gaes’ parents thought he just had a really bad case of the flu. But a couple days later when he started coughing up blood they rushed him Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins. They were just 5 miles away when Gaes stopped breathing and died.
Gaes, a junior at Poudre High School and a football quarterback, baseball starting pitcher and first baseman, died the day after his 16th birthday.
Officials believe Gaes contracted septicemic plague after an infected flea bit him at his family’s ranch land in Cherokee Park.
“Normally we would see the fleas on a dead rodent that’s already infected. Once that animal dies, they look for a new host. And often times that’s either a human or a cat or a dog,” Katie O’Donnell with Larimer County Public Health and Environment said.
O’Donnell said Gaes is the first county resident to contract the deadly disease since 1999, and nobody knew what he had until it was too late.
“The quick onset like he had, often accompanied by some aches and pains, those are really the only symptoms that Taylor complained of, so it’s a very general, hard to diagnose type of illness,” O’Donnell said.
“Shock and disbelief,” said Gaes’ baseball coach Russell Haigh. “We’re going to miss him a great deal.”
Haigh remembers him as a talented player, incredible teammate, and stellar student.
“I don’t want to lose sight of the fact of what a great person, on top of a great athlete, he was, because he did work hard in the classroom,” Haigh said.
The loss hits especially hard since it marks Poudre High’s third student death this year.
“The phrase, ‘it can’t get any worse,’ doesn’t apply to us, because it just continues to happen,” Haigh said.
Health officials are warning people who visited the family’s home after Gaes’ June 8 death to be extra vigilant. There’s a small chance they could have been bitten by plague-infected fleas. Those who experience flu-like symptoms should seek immediate medical attention.
Additional Information From Larimer County Public Health And Environment
Plague can spread through rodent populations in a localized area often resulting in mass animal “die-offs.” The only animals with confirmed plague so far this year in Larimer County were in an area of Soapstone Natural area this is not open to the public.
In recent decades, an average of seven human plague cases are reported each year nationwide according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most human cases in the United States are scattered in rural areas and occur predominantly in two regions:
Northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southern Colorado, California, southern Oregon, and far western Nevada
Bubonic plague is the most common form of the disease in humans (about 80% of cases) Symptoms begin two to six days after the bite of an infected flea, or contact with an infected rodent or cat. Typical symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, sudden onset of fever or chills, severe headache, extreme exhaustion, and a general feeling of illness. Bubonic plague can be successfully treated when diagnosed promptly. If you have had a possible exposure to infected rodents or fleas and are experiencing these symptoms, consult a physician as soon as possible.
Septicemic plague occurs when the bacteria enter the bloodstream directly and spread throughout the body. Pneumonic plague can occur when bacteria a directly inhaled, or can be from secondary spread of bubonic or septicemic plague. The recent fatal case appears to have had a septicemic plague infection. These forms are highly fatal unless treated promptly; unfortunately there are often no localizing signs to suggest plague.
Cats are infected from flea bites or by direct contact with infected rodents. Plague infected cats will generally have a history of roaming freely in rural or semi-rural areas and their owners often report that they are known predators.
Infected cats frequently exhibit swelling and sores around the mouth, head, and neck, and appear to be ill. Seek veterinary care for such animals. Since domestic cats and dogs can carry infected fleas into the home environment, it is also important to consult your veterinarian for information about flea control for your pets. While dogs rarely appear sick from plague, it is still important that they are treated for fleas as they can still carry them into the home.
TIPS TO PREVENT PLAGUE
Avoid contact with all sick and dead rodents and rabbits. Look for the presence of blow flies or dead animal smell as evidence of animal die-offs. Prairie dog colonies that suddenly are not active may also be due to plague activity in the area. Report such die-offs to Larimer County Health Department at 498-6775.
While hiking, treat pants, socks, shoe tops, arms and legs with insect repellents.
Keep your pets from roaming and hunting and talk to your veterinarian about using an appropriate flea control product.
Sick pets should be examined promptly by a veterinarian.
If you hunt or trap rabbits or carnivorous wild animals, wear gloves and a respiratory mask while skinning or handling these animals. Fresh pelts may be treated with flea powder.
Bites from wild carnivores and from cats and dogs have caused human plague. Such animals may be infected, carry the bacteria in their mouths or may transport infective fleas. If you are bitten, follow-up with your health care provider.
DO NOT feed or entice any rodent or rabbit species into your yard, back porch, or patio.
Eliminate rodent habitat, such as piles of lumber, broken cement, trash and weeds around your home, outbuildings and cabins.
When outdoors, minimize exposure in rodent-infested areas. Do not catch, play with, or attempt to hand feed wild rodents.
For more information on plague, visit www.cdc.gov/plague.