|Aug 27, 3:43 PM (ET)
By MICHELLE L. PRICE
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah 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, 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.
Haley said the latest patient got the disease in Utah, possibly after being in rural areas and near campgrounds. The person was hospitalized about five days after coming down with symptoms, and died in mid-August at the University of Utah’s Hospital.
State health officials declined to release the patient’s age, gender or hometown, saying the person’s family wanted to keep those details private. However, Mead confirmed the Utah case involved a man in his 70s.
Health officials checked with family members who may have been exposed to the person, but Baker said the incubation period has passed and no family members or anyone else reported symptoms.
Plague is naturally occurring in Utah rodents and is often seen in prairie dog populations, the Department of Health said. Wildlife and health officials confirmed in July that an outbreak of bubonic plague killed 60 to 80 prairie dogs in an eastern Utah colony.
Annette Roug, a veterinarian with Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources, said Thursday state investigators found prairie dog burrows near the person’s property but no sign that animals were still living there.
Roug said if wildlife officials find prairie dog burrows in the area, they may treat them with insecticide to kill fleas that carry the disease. She declined to say where the affected area is in Utah.
Human cases of plague often occur in areas where wild rodent populations are near campsites and homes. Transmission between people is rare.
Baker said anyone going to rural areas or campgrounds can protect themselves by wearing insect repellent; thoroughly cooking any wild game and sanitizing knives and preparation tools; wearing gloves when handling or skinning wild animals; and ensuring pets are wearing flea collars.
Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice .
Couple Held Hands for 1,500 Years
October 21, 2011 7:30:00 AM
Italian archaeologists say the man and woman were buried at the same time between the 5th and 6th century A.D. in central-northern Italy. Wearing a bronze ring, the woman is positioned so she appears to be gazing at her male partner.
“We believe that they were originally buried with their faces staring into each other. The position of the man’s vertebrae suggests that his head rolled after death,” Donato Labate, the director of the excavation at the archaeological superintendency of Emilia-Romagna, told Discovery News.
The tender discovery was made during ordinary construction work in Modena and was announced this week. Labate explained the dig revealed three layers of scientific interest.
The deeper layer, some 23 feet below the surface, contained the remains of Roman-era structures, including a calcara where mortar was produced. The ruins belonged to the suburbs of Modena, then called Mutina.
“A middle layer, at a depth of about 10 feet, featured 11 burials, while a third stratification on top of the necropolis, revealed seven empty tombs,” Labate said.
Excavated by archaeologist Licia Diamanti, the skeleton couple belonged to the 11 tomb necropolis. According to Labate, the simple fossa (trench) tombs suggest that the people buried there were not particularly rich.
“They were possibly the inhabitants of a farm,” Labate said.
The area was subjected to several floods from the nearby river Tiepido — which may have caused the male skeleton’s skull to roll away from the female skeleton after burial. The necropolis was covered by alluvial deposits, and on top of them, another seven tombs were built.
“These burials were empty. Most likely, they were covered by another flood just after their construction. We think it was a catastrophic flood which occurred in 589, as reported by the historian Paul the Deacon,” Labate said.
The two skeletons, which are poorly preserved, will be now studied by Giorgio Gruppioni, an anthropologist at the University of Bologna. The research includes establishing the couple’s age, their relationship and the possible cause of death.
“In antiquity, it is not surprising to learn of spouses or members of a family dying at the same time: whenever epidemics such as the Black Plague ravaged Europe, one member of the family would often die while the family was trying to bury another member,” Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, told Discovery News.
In 2007 another skeleton couple, buried between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, was found at a neolithic site near Mantua, just 25 miles south of Verona, where Shakespeare set the romantic story of Romeo and Juliet.
Locked in a tender embrace, they also looked at one another in apparent defiance of time and decay.
“The two couples are separated in time by five millennia, and both evoke an uplifting tenderness. I have been involved in many digs, but I’ve never felt so moved,” Labate said.
According to Killgrove, the positioning of the Modena skeletons, looking at one another and holding hands, indeed suggests they may have been a couple.
“Whoever buried these people likely felt that communicating their relationship was just as important in death as it was in life,” Killgrove said.