LA PLATA COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – San Juan Basic Public Health and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment are researching how a La Plata County resident may have contracted the plague. The cause of the death has yet to be confirmed by the La Plata County Coroner’s Office, but health officials suspect the yersinia pestis bacteria is associated with the passing of a young girl.

If confirmed, it would be the state’s first plague death since 2015.

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The Durango Herald, referring to a letter emailed Thursday to 4-H Weaselskin Club members, reported the deceased was a 10-year-old girl.

“Medical and health professionals are trying to track down where she contracted the disease,” the letter stated. “At this time, that is still unknown.”

The letter, signed by Mike and Rachael Latham, leaders of the 4-H Weaselskin Club, described the girl as a fourth-grader at Sunnyside Elementary School.

“She was raising hogs in 4-H this year and had just finished playing softball. She had a most beautiful smile and was so very sweet!” the letter stated.

The girl’s family declined to comment to the Herald, but did express in the 4-H letter a reminder to others to be aware of the danger of plague.

SJBPH was notified of the death July 7. A CDPHE lab is conducting additional tests to confirm the diagnosis.

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Humans are exposed to the plague by direct contact with infected animals. It is also transmitted by fleas from pets which have come in contact with affected animals, according to SJBPH’s press release. It is most commonly detected in rodents, particularly prairie dogs.

The local health department asked to be notified by residents who encounter die-offs of active prairie dog colonies. It also advised residents to not touch dead animals, and to protect pets with updated vaccinations and protection from fleas.

The CDPHE says two human cases of plague were reported in Colorado last year and both patients survived. Both people had exposure to sick animals.

Plague has been present in Colorado for at least 80 years.

The following actions can be taken to protect you and your pets from plague, according to the CDPHE:

– Don’t directly handle wildlife.
– Keep pets away from dead rodents and rabbits.
– Dogs and cats should be prevented from hunting prairie dogs, other rodents, or rabbits.
– Follow a veterinarian’s advice for treatment of fleas if a pet has a case of them.
– Feeding wildlife, other than birds, is a big no-no. It attracts the animals to your property, bringing them in close contact where disease transmission is more likely.

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Health officials urge the public to call their offices if they believe an animal might be infected, or if they witness sudden die-offs of numerous wild animals, which could be a sign that the plague is present and spreading.

Logan Smith