Canada: The Black Plague found in Saskatchewan gopher populations

VAL MARIE, SASK.—The plague has been found amongst the prairie dog populations in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park, but staff say the risk the notorious disease poses to people is “very low.”

The plague, which killed millions during the Middle Ages, is a disease caused by a strain of bacteria that can affect both animals and humans.
It’s naturally occurring throughout the southern Prairies in wildlife such as ground squirrels and mice and can be transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected flea.

“It’s very rare for a human to intercept an infected flea,” said Pat Fargey, a species at risk specialist with Parks Canada. “The risk is
quite low, but because we have had this positive prairie dog, we really want to make people aware.”

Researchers found numerous animal’s carcasses last month and it was sent them away for testing. That’s standard procedure with any unexplained death in the park, Fargey said.

Staff are now monitoring the prairie dog colonies for any further signs of the disease. Fargey said he’s not aware whether Grasslands has ever had a plague outbreak in its colonies, but he’s seen cases in the United States where up to 90 per cent of the animals in one group were killed by the disease.

The park recommends people not walk through the prairie dog colonies and that they tuck their pants into their socks and use insect repellent on their shoes. Some areas have also been closed to dogs and other domestic pets.

The plague is extremely rare in humans and is usually treatable if diagnosed in time. The last case of a human contracting the plague in Canada was in 1939, but there are 10 to 15 cases every year in the southwestern United States.

Two deaths were attributed to plague in the United States in 1996.
There have been several outbreaks of plague in human history. It has killed 200 million people around the world. In 14th century Europe, plague — or Black Death, as it was known — killed 30 per cent of the European population by some estimates.

A bacterium called Yersinia pestis is the only cause of plague, but it can cause different types of illness.

The bubonic plague is most common. The infection appears in the lymph nodes, causing them to swell and become painful.

Pneumonic plague is the most deadly. It can be spread through coughs or sneezes, or through contact with infected body fluids.

Symptoms are flu-like and can include vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain.

The Canadian Press

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