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Plague poses a risk for those who enjoy hiking, picnicking in mountains and rural areas. But with the right precautions, the danger is slight.

September 18, 2000

Visitors to rural picnic spots, campgrounds and wilderness areas should take precautions against plague, which can be carried by squirrels, chipmunks and other wild rodents, according to a new report by the state Department of Health.

The highly infectious bacterial disease, which primarily affects rodents, is spread by fleas. When an infected animal dies, the fleas look for a new host.

Many warm-blooded animals, including humans, may unwittingly become host to infected fleas and subsequently acquire the disease. People also can be exposed through contact with infected cats, which are highly susceptible to the disease.

Since 1970, 37 cases of plague have been confirmed in California.

* Individuals can greatly reduce their risk of becoming infected with plague by taking simple precautions, including avoiding contact with wild rodents. Do not feed rodents in picnic or campground areas and never handle sick or dead rodents.

* Leave your pets at home when visiting rural areas.

* Avoid walking, hiking or camping near rodent burrows.

* Wear long pants tucked into boot tops to reduce exposure to fleas.

* Spray insect repellent on socks and trouser cuffs.

* Individuals living in areas where plague is known to occur should keep wild rodents out of homes, trailers and outbuildings and away from pets.

* If sick and dying rodents or other evidence of plague are observed, posing a risk to humans, affected areas may be temporarily closed to implement control measures.

* In California, plague-infected animals are most likely to be found in the foothills and mountains and along the coast.

* Desert and Central Valley areas are considered at low risk for plague.

* Early symptoms of plague in humans include high fever, chills, nausea, weakness and swollen glands in the neck, armpit or groin. Individuals who develop these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention. With prompt diagnosis and proper treatment, the disease is curable in its early stages, but may be fatal if untreated.

Source: California Department of Health

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