New Mexico Man Contracts Plague and Dies in First Fatality Since 2020

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A New Mexico man contracted and died of plague in the state’s first recorded fatality from the disease since 2020, its public health agency announced Friday.

The Lincoln County man, whose name was not released, succumbed to the illness after being hospitalized, the New Mexico Department of Health said in a statement. His was the first reported case of the rodent-origin bacterial disease since 2021.

“We extend our deepest sympathy to the family of the Lincoln County man who succumbed to plague,” Erin Phipps, the state veterinarian, said.

The bacterial disease, typically spread through infected flea bites, can be transferred to people through a chain of animal interactions. Outdoor dogs and cats who roam freely can bring back the infected fleas who feasted on dead rodents.

New Mexico’s health department focused on outreach and prevention in its announcement, advising residents to avoid wild animal nests and protect pets from infection by using flea control products and keeping them from roaming or hunting.

“This tragic incident serves as a clear reminder of the threat posed by this ancient disease and emphasizes the need for heightened community awareness and proactive measures to prevent its spread,” Phipps said.

David Morgan, the department’s public information officer, said New Mexico’s small and mostly rural population and patient privacy laws made it difficult to release details relating to the case, such as the man’s age, how the man became sick and where in Lincoln County he contracted the disease.

The department said it would “conduct an environmental assessment in the community” to evaluate risk in its announcement.

U.S. cases of plague occur almost exclusively in the West, with more than half of all recorded cases between 1970-2020 developing in New Mexico alone. According to the CDC, there are about 1-17 reported cases per year across the entire U.S.