Plague bacteria found in east-central Arizona

Joe Busch of NAU and graduate assistant Katy Parise, examine a cloth for live fleas. A team of four were in the Concho area Sept. 15 checking out prairie dog mounds for contaminated fleas. The fleas will be transported to the lab at NAU and tested to see if they carry the plague bacteria.

CONCHO — Residents in the Concho Valley area off of Highway 61 noticed hundreds of prairies dogs had died in a short span of time. Prairie dogs are considered sentinel animals to the fact that plague is in the area. Officials with Arizona Game and Fish were notified by an alert resident and further contact was made with health officials from Apache and Coconino counties, the state health department, as well as experts at Northern Arizona University.

NAU is home to the Microbial Genetics and Genomics Center and has been a key player in testing for plague for the past 10 years. The lab sent a team to the area to trap fleas in the prairie dog holes that had recent die-offs. The team’s first visit was on August 27 and results from the lab testing showed positive for plague.

The team, headed by Joe Busch, a Ph.D. doctoral researcher, visited again on September 15, and captured fleas in mounds in other areas of Concho Valley and towards the Snowflake area. Results from the testing should be available in the next week said Busch.

The southwest is a “hot spot” for the plague bacteria which comes and goes in cycles of about every five to ten years said Busch. It is also one of the most aggressive and dangerous of bacterial pathogens he said. There is still a lot experts don’t know about the origins of plague and how it survives. Like other bacteria, it can have several strains.

Prairie dog die-offs are a key factor in the cycle. Other mammals carry the plague virus, especially rodents and rabbits, though it isn’t noticed as much when they die off.

Not all prairie dog mounds were found to or will contain plague, but the problem could extend out into the rural areas in the northern half of the state. Not all fleas found in a contaminated mound will carry the plague.

Capturing the fleas is not as hard a job as most would suspect. Busch and his graduate assistants, Katy Parise, Emily Kaufman, and Anna Montiel were not decked out in hazmat suits as expected. They do use a variation of the suits when doing lab work, but in the field, they wear surgical gloves and long sleeves and pants that cover all exposed skin.

Once the prairie dogs have died off, the fleas stay in the mounds for up to several months, or go looking for new hosts to which they can pass the bacteria.

Using a sewer snake with a clip at the end, the team attaches a piece of soft material to the clip, breathes on it, and inserts it into the hole, which can stretch for up to 20 feet. Another breathed-on cloth is placed at the top of the hole. Fleas are attracted to carbon dioxide, which most mammals exhale.

Letting the cloths stay in place for up to a minute, the team then pulls them out and checks for fleas. If any are found, they are put into labeled plastic bags to take back to the lab.

After plague was found in the fleas captured on the first trip, Coconino County, which is also a “hot spot” for plague and has plenty of experience in testing and managing outbreaks, came out and dusted the contaminated holes.

Apache County health officials are working with NAU and Coconino County on the issues locally. NAU provided materials for the capturing and shipping of fleas.

Chris Sexton, director of Apache County Health Department stated they would contract out any dusting as they don’t have the manpower or expertise.

Sexton stated they are getting the word out to hospitals, veterinarians, and schools to be aware that plague has been found in the area.

The County is also notifying homeowners in areas where contaminated fleas were found. Sexton stated the public should become educated on the plague, restrain free-roaming domestic animals and make sure they get flea treatments, and report suspected sick animals, especially cats.

Plague will continue to be present in northern Arizona though reports of humans contacting the disease are rare. Those most at risk include those in rural areas and who have animals that roam free, hunters, hikers and anyone coming into contact with infected animals.

Contact the Apache or Navajo County health departments if you notice a prairie dog die-off in your area.

Reach the writer at

(6) comments


And??? Seriously, wheres the rest of the story? Can humans get it? What are the consequences if they do? Is it easily transmittable or do you need be bit by several fleas? What the frick?

Is this the best journalism available on the mountain now days?


flecker: I must assume you did not get the full story, and additional information which is available to subscribers. Due to the nature of the article I will quote a few lines to alert the unsubscribed
"People can get plague from being bitten by infected fleas from petting dogs or cats, handling wild rodents or rabbits, getting too close to animal nests or burrows, and from touching infected game through open cuts or scratches or through touching infected game and touching the eyes, nose or mouth."
"Domestic dogs can carry the plague, though they rarely get it, but they may have infected fleas. Cats do get plague and it transmutes to pneumonic plague which they can spread by breathing."
"Contact the Apache or Navajo County health departments if you notice a prairie dog die-off in your area"

over the hill

flecker, without an internet subscription you only get the first paragraph or two.


Considering the fact that this is extremely important, I think EVERYONE should have access to the complete story on-line at no cost! This to me is irresponsible on the part of wmicentral

wes alderson

I feel disappointed in each of these posts, above, other than the one by Overthe hill and jboysasr.

Yes- humans can get it, and it only takes One bite. And it is frequently fatal.

See the other posts I have made on this medical phenomenon elsewhere in this edition. Read and learn for your own sakes and that of your families..

Don't think it is the responsibility of our local newspaper to tell you about medical information you should have learned in Freshman Biology Class in High School.


Jesus Christi, mon, it's only 20 bucks a year!

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