The New Mexico Department of Health is investigating a probable case of plague in a 52-year-old woman from Santa Fe County who died of her illness.

This would be the first human case of plague in New Mexico this year. An environmental investigation will take place at the woman’s home to look for ongoing risk to others in the surrounding area.

Due to privacy issues, the health department does not identify the area of the county where the woman lived.

“Department of Health staff will go door-to-door to neighbors near the case to inform them about plague found in the area and educate them on reducing their risk,” said Health Secretary Retta Ward, MPH. “Because the patient had pneumonia, health care providers and other close contacts of the patient who have been determined to have been exposed are taking preventive antibiotic therapy.”

Plague is a bacterial disease of rodents and is generally transmitted to humans through the bites of infected fleas, but it can also be transmitted by direct contact with infected animals, including rodents, wildlife and pets.

Plague cases can occur at any time of the year in New Mexico, but most cases occur during the summer months. It is especially important now given the warm temperatures to take precautions to avoid rodents and their fleas which can expose people to plague.

Pets that are allowed to roam and hunt can bring infected fleas into the home, putting household members at risk.

To prevent plague, the health department recommends:

  • Avoid sick or dead rodents and rabbits, and their nests and burrows;
  • Keep pets from roaming and hunting;
  • Talk to a veterinarian about flea control;
  • Clean up areas near the house where rodents could live, such as woodpiles, brush piles, junk and abandoned vehicles;
  • Have sick pets examined promptly by a veterinarian;
  • See a doctor about any unexplained illness involving a sudden and severe fever;
  • Put hay, wood, and compost piles as far as possible from your home;
  • Don’t leave pet food and water where mice can get to it.

Symptoms of plague in humans include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, and weakness. In most cases there is a painful swelling of the lymph node in the groin, armpit or neck areas.

Plague symptoms in cats and dogs are fever, lethargy and loss of appetite. There may be a swelling in the lymph node under the jaw. With prompt diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic treatment, the fatality rate in people and pets can be greatly reduced.

In New Mexico, there were two human plague cases in 2014, four human plague cases in 2013 with one fatality, one human plague case in 2012, two human cases of plague in 2011, and no cases in 2010.

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