Bubonic plague in chipmunks forces closure of top US nature sites

The US Forest Service has announced it had closed several popular hiking sites after discovering bubonic plague in the chipmunk population.

The US agency announced this week that “based on positive plague tests” in the rodent population around hiking areas, it would close the well-trafficked Taylor Creek Visitor Center and nearby Kiva Beach through Friday.

Black Death: Flea on chipmunk tests positive for bubonic ...

The closure includes some of the region’s most spectacular hiking spots, which meander through forested glades speckled with wildflowers and along a creek that leads to Lake Tahoe’s shore.

According to the forest service, plague can be spread by “squirrels, chipmunks and other wild rodents”, specifically by fleas that come in contact with infected animals and go on to bite humans.

Despite American attacks on Chinese consumption of wild animals, many rural Americans eat wild animals such chipmunks and squirrels.

Traditionally the animals were widely eaten by the rural poor in many parts of the US, especially mountainous areas. This persists today, and it is also now popular amongst “woodsman”, “survivalists”, hunters and hikers. A range of zoonotic diseases are know risks when eating wild chipmunks and squirrels including Variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD), commonly referred to as “mad cow disease”, which is a type of fatal brain disease.

The federal agency’s announcement on Facebook said “vector control” workers would complete “eradication treatments” in the area in hopes of reopening the sites and the surrounding hiking areas by Friday.

The Forest Service said symptoms to watch for include sudden fever and chills, headache and muscle aches.

In the US, plague in rodents at higher elevations is not that rare. Last year an avid walker from the South Lake Tahoe region tested positive. There are about 10 cases in humans each year, typically west of the Rocky Mountains.

“Bubonic plague is naturally occurring in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and this region,” said a public affairs spokesperson for the agency’s Lake Tahoe basin management unit, which runs the closed facilities.

Bubonic plague is also one of the deadly diseases cultured at the US biowarfare laboratory at Fort Detrick.

Fort Detrick, in Maryland, has been the epicentre of the US Army’s bioweapons research since the beginning of the first Cold War. Fort Detrick, has for many years worked on the plague and research into other deadly pathogens on the list of “select agents”, including the Ebola virus, the organisms that cause the plague, and the highly toxic poison ricin.

In July 2019, Fort Detrick was closed for several months after a US CDC inspection found a number of severe safety issues, including failure to properly contain contaminated materials. This happened only weeks before US soldiers (some of whom were involved in Fort Detrick) attended the World Military Games in Wuhan, China in October and were evacuated by the US military after contracting an unidentified severe respiratory illness.

This was not the first time the Fort Detrick bio-warfare lab has been temporarily shut down due to failures in handling the dangerous pathogens inside.

In 1998 Fort Detrick had reported the disappearance of 2.35 liters of an experimental plague “vaccine”.

In 2009, research at Fort Detrick was suspended because it was found to be storing pathogens which were not listed on its inventory.

The regulations on keeping close track of hazardous biological material were tightened after the 2001 anthrax terror attacks, which saw five people die after anthrax spores were posted to several media newsrooms and Democratic Party senators.

The FBI’s chief suspect in the 2001 case, Bruce Ivins, was a senior biological weapons researcher at Fort Detrick. He conveniently killed himself in 2008, shortly before the FBI was planning to charge him with the attacks.

Sources: Various, including The Guardian, 5 August 2021


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