SALT LAKE CITY — A man in his 70s has died after contracting the plague, bringing to four the number of deaths from the disease reported in the United States this year, health officials said Thursday.
Officials are still trying to determine how the Utah person contracted the disease, but believe it might have been spread by a flea or contact with a dead animal, according to the state Department of Health.
“That’s the most common way to get it,” said JoDee Baker, an epidemiologist with the agency. “That’s probably what happened, but we’re still doing an investigation into that.”
Plague is a rare disease that is carried by rodents and spread by fleas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 11 other cases have been reported in six states since April 1. The other three people who died were ages 16, 52 and 79.
Anywhere between one and 17 cases of the illness have been reported each year in the U.S. since 2000, according to the CDC. Deaths are rare, with no more than two a year having been recorded over the past 15 years.
However, Dr. Paul Mead said four deaths so far this year is not necessarily a cause for alarm.
“Yes, it’s twice as many, but when you’re dealing with small numbers, you have that kind of variation,” he said Thursday.
Patients in a few of the 11 other cases this year came down with the plague after visiting Yosemite National Park in California.
The last human case of plague in Utah was in 2009, but state Health Department spokeswoman Charla Haley said no deaths from plague have been recorded in the state in at least 35 years.
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