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Testing Planned in Santa Barbara County After Squirrel in L.A. Tests Positive for Plague

After at least one squirrel at a Los Angeles-area campground tested positive for plague last week, Santa Barbara County officials confirmed that testing will take place here in August in some area campgrounds.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and U.S. Forest Service officials announced last week that they’ve closed three areas near campgrounds in the Angeles National Forest after tests confirmed that one ground squirrel tested positive for plague during a routine check.

The sites were officially closed last Wednesday, and will be closed for at least a week as testing continues, a statement from the health department said.

“Plague is a bacterial infection that can be transmitted to humans through the bites of infected fleas, which is why we close affected campgrounds and recreational areas as a precaution while preventive measures are taken to control the flea population,” Director of Public Health Jonathan Fielding said.

Fielding said there have been only four cases of human plague in Los Angeles County residents since 1984, none of which was fatal.

Bubonic plague is transmitted through flea bites, and symptoms include enlargement of lymph glands near the flea bite and rapid onset of fever and chills, according to the statement.  All forms of the disease can be fatal if not treated; however, most patients respond well to antibiotic therapy.

A biologist from the California Department of Public Health will be in Santa Barbara County in August to do some trapping in some of the local campgrounds, said Larry Fausett, general manager of the Mosquito and Vector Management District of Santa Barbara County.

“We will be assisting her and she will take samples to be checked for plague,” he said, adding that district officials have not had any cases reported to them.

Fausett said the only case of plague is Santa Barbara County he is aware of was in a coyote trapped by a federal trapper in 1996. 

Common vectors that can carry the disease in the county are ground squirrels, chipmunks, wood rats and the common rat that is found in urban areas, he said.

The disease is the same scourge that wiped out millions in Europe in the middle ages, and while still lethal, responds well to medical treatment.

“Plague sounds like a big deal, but it is naturally occurring in a number of primarily rural areas,” said Dr. Takashi Wada, director of Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.

Wada was formerly director of the Pasadena Public Health Department, and while there, he said the department routinely tested squirrels for plague because they knew it was present, though very rare. 

Michelle Wehmer, an epidemiologist with Santa Barbara County Public Health, said there aren’t any current cases of plague in the county and that the department isn’t taking any increased efforts to monitor plague right now.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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