Study: Mountain home boom affects NM plague cases

November 24, 2012 • State News

[auth] ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The construction of rustic homes in the mountains east of Albuquerque and in rural Santa Fe County has led to a shift in the location of plague cases in New Mexico, according to a new study.

The study co-authored by state public health veterinarian Paul Ettestad says the building trend that began in the 1980s brought more people to areas that rodents once had to themselves, the Albuquerque Journal reported Thursday. ( ).

So far this year, the state Department of Health has reported one nonfatal case of the plague. A 78-year-old Torrance County man was hospitalized in May and recovered.

In 2011, New Mexico had two nonfatal cases of human plague, both in Santa Fe County.

Plague is a rare but potentially deadly illness carried by wild rodents and rabbits. The disease is typically spread to humans by the bites of infected fleas.

Symptoms in humans include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, and weakness. If diagnosed promptly, plague can be effectively treated with antibiotics.

The disease was previously most common in low-income communities in the northwestern part of the state.

Today, however, human plague is most likely to sicken people in rural Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties.

“You have more affluent people moving into areas like the East Mountains” and southeastern Santa Fe County, Ettestad said. “Those are areas where historically there have been large colonies of prairie dogs and rock squirrels and other rodents.”

The study, “Changing Socioeconomic Indicators of Human Plague, New Mexico,” was published on July 18 in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

More mysteriously, human plague cases have all but vanished in the state’s northwestern counties, an epicenter for the disease in the 1980s, the report found.

A possible explanation is that drought has reduced populations of rodents carrying Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes plague.

The 1980s were the state’s most deadly decade for human plague, with 104 cases and 14 deaths. Santa Fe and McKinley counties each had 22 cases, and Rio Arriba County had 11 cases.

“In the 1980s, plague tended to occur in (communities) with poor housing conditions and high proportions of the population living near or below the poverty line,” authors of the study wrote.

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