On the Job: How PMPs should view plague risk


April 25, 2024

PHOTO: Mark_KA / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Cats that hunt can bring fleas from infected rodents into the home. Photo: Mark_KA / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Plague is a bacterial disease of rodents. It’s generally spread to humans through the bites of infected fleas. It also can spread by direct contact with infected animals, including rodents, wildlife and pets. Dogs and cats that are allowed to roam and hunt can bring infected fleas from dead rodents back into the home, putting household members at risk.

Last month, the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) announced that a Lincoln County man died of plague after being hospitalized for the disease. It is the first human case of bubonic plague in the Land of Enchantment State since 2021 and the first death since 2020.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says an average of seven human plague cases have been reported each year, with a range of one to 17 cases per year. Most cases are reported from two regions:

  • Northern New Mexico, northern Arizona and southern Colorado.
  • California, southern Oregon and far western Nevada.

The risk is real

Pest Management Professional turned to one of its frequent contributors and Editorial Advisory Board member Dan Baldwin, BCE, REHS/RS, CCFS, CP-FS, PCQI, vice president of technical services for Hawx Pest Control in Tombstone, Ariz., to learn his take on how much of a risk plague is to the pest management industry.

“Collectively, we have short memories, forgetting how not so long ago, pests represented much more of a threat to human health here in North America,” Baldwin says. “The last urban plague epidemic in the United States occurred in Los Angeles, Calif., from 1924-1925.” He acknowledges that may seem like ancient history, until you realize our last pandemic before COVID-19, the Spanish flu, “officially” ended in 1918.

“Much of the population doesn’t know that the plague involves rodents and fleas, and that Hantavirus involves rodents,” he adds. Until COVID-19, Zika virus was the lead story a few years ago.

“Thanks in no small part to the efforts of pest management professionals (PMPs) and public agencies, much of the population lives in areas that are far from natural reservoirs of organisms that cause serious illnesses,” Baldwin says. “But that doesn’t mean the hazards don’t exist. It just means the risk of encountering one of these reservoirs is relatively small for most people.”

Pests can carry disease

While you shouldn’t use scare tactics on your customers, you should communicate that there is some association between pest activity and disease. He offers the following examples:

  • When we perform a service to eliminate a German cockroach infestation, do we recommend cleanup and sanitization services? What about when rodents or other wildlife pests are involved?
  • Do we always wear the proper personal protective equipment (PPE)?
  • Do we always recommend clean up and sanitization?
  • Do we always recommend flea control and sanitization services after a rodent infestation?

“The underlying message is that, while we are fortunate to live where vector-borne illnesses are rare, the potential for encountering pathogens exists,” Baldwin says. “We must be mindful of that while serving the needs of our customers.”

About the Author

Ellen Wagner is a former digital editor for PMP magazine.

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