Prairie dogs at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in this 2011 file photo. (CC license via USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Flickr)

By Shannon Mullane, The Durango Herald

A 10-year-old girl from La Plata County is the first person to die from plague in Colorado since 2015, San Juan Basin Public Health officials confirmed Friday afternoon.

Although public health officials did not identify the victim, in a letter emailed Thursday to members of the 4-H Weaselskin Club, leaders said a 4-H member, age 10, died Monday from the plague.

“Medical and health professionals are trying to track down where she contracted the disease,” the email reads. “At this time, that is still unknown.”

The email was sent by Angela Fountain with the La Plata County CSU Extension and assistant director of 4-H Youth Development.

Jann Smith, La Plata County coroner, confirmed the child had a suspected case of plague but said the Coroner’s Office has not determined the official cause of death.

Family members declined to comment for this story.

Social media posts expressed prayers and condolences for the family. The 4-H letter included statements from the family reminding others to be aware of the danger of plague.

The letter, signed by Mike and Rachael Latham, leaders of the 4-H Weaselskin Club, said the girl was in fourth grade at Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango.

“She was raising hogs in 4-H this year and had just finished playing softball. She had a most beautiful smile and was so very sweet!” the letter said.

San Juan Basin Public Health reported the death on Thursday and on Friday said laboratory testing had confirmed “a case of plague (Yersinia pestis) associated with a recent death of a 10-year-old La Plata County resident.”

“We are so sad for the loss of this young Coloradan and our deepest condolences go to the family,” said Dr. Jennifer House, the state public health veterinarian. “Public health is doing an epidemiological investigation and wants Coloradans to know that while this disease is very rare, it does occur sometimes, and to seek medical care if you have symptoms.”

Only one other case of plague, identified in El Paso County, has been reported in 2021.

Plague, a naturally occurring bacteria that can be transmitted to humans through the bites of infected fleas, is often detected in rock squirrels, prairie dogs, wood rats and other species of ground squirrels, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Symptoms of infection can vary depending on how a person was exposed to the bacteria. Plague is a very serious illness, but is treatable with common antibiotics and most effective when a patient receives treatment early on, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

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