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Ground squirrel tests positive for bubonic plague exposure

Approximate location of squirrel shown in red.

A ground squirrel in the San Jacinto Mountains has tested positive for exposure to the bacteria that can cause bubonic plague, the first discovery of its kind in Riverside County in almost a decade.

County officials on Tuesday said the positive result was collected during routine testing Sept. 6 from a squirrel in the Fern Basin campground, north of Idyllwild.

The squirrel was found to have “exposure to fleas infected with bacteria that can cause plague,” according to a news release. But that doesn’t mean would-be hikers or nearby residents should panic, said Dottie Merki, the county’s environmental health program chief.

“There’s no need to be frightened about it, you should just always be cautious about camping in areas where the plague is endemic,” Merki said. “We don’t want to incite panic in the public. Our first reaction is just to make sure people are aware that it’s out there so they can take precautions to protect their families and their pets.”

Later this week, Merki said, workers would conduct further tests on animals in the area. The risk of transmission to humans is minimal, officials said, but the news release offered several precautionary measures:

-- Avoid contact with ground squirrels, tree squirrels and other wild animals.

-- Do not feed or touch wild animals, or touch dead animals.

-- Do not rest or camp near animal burrows.

-- Protect your pets by leaving them at home, or by keeping them on a leash and using flea-control methods.

-- Contact your doctor immediately if you become ill after visiting a known plague area. Symptoms include a sudden onset of fever, chills and tender swollen lymph nodes.

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-- Ari Bloomekatz

Map: Approximate location of squirrel shown in red. Credit: Google Maps

 
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