An elderly man in Utah died of plague earlier this month, state health officials said Thursday. This is the first death from the disease in the state and the fourth in the U.S. this year.
Authorities did not disclose the man’s identity, but said he was in his 70s. Health department officials believe the man might have contracted the disease after coming in contact with a flea carrying the disease or a dead animal.
"That's the most common way to get it," JoDee Baker, an epidemiologist with Utah Department of Health, said, according to the Associated Press (AP). "That's probably what happened, but we're still doing an investigation into that," Baker added.
Charla Haley, spokeswoman of the Utah Department of Health, reportedly said that the man likely contracted the disease after being in rural areas or near campgrounds recently. The man was hospitalized five days after he showed symptoms and died at University of Utah’s Hospital in mid-August, the AP reported.
News of the latest death came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the latest data on plague cases across the U.S. Tuesday. The report said that 11 people were found to have contracted the disease in six states since April 1, adding that the number of plague instances was higher than usual. Between 2001 and 2012, the number of plague cases in the U.S. varied from one to 17 cases per year.
The latest data showed that Colorado had the maximum of number of cases with four, followed by Arizona and New Mexico, with two each. California, Georgia and Oregon had one plague case each. The spread of the disease in Georgia and California was associated to exposure at or near Yosemite National Park, located in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.
"It is unclear why the number of cases in 2015 is higher than usual," the CDC said in its report.
The disease is rare among humans and is usually seen in prairie dog populations in the country's southwestern states. Other animals such as ferrets, squirrels and rabbits are also likely to get and spread plague.
Patients can be treated successfully with antibiotics if the disease is caught early. The death rate for people with plague who receive treatment is 16 percent, compared to a death rate of between 66 percent to 93 percent for those who are not treated, according to CDC.