“The only good varmint is a dead varmint” – Carl Spackler, assistant greens-keeper Bushwood Country Club.
Mono County is infested not with rodents but with mice, squirrels, chipmunks, ticks and fleas carrying deadly diseases and germs. Mono County Public Health Officer Richard Johnson has released an update on locals that have become sick from little critters.
The bubonic plague is back this summer. Johnson said that a 12-year old Los Angeles girl camping in the Crane Fat area in Yosemite National Park tested positive for the black death in July, but is now doing fine. He added that no local squirrels have tested positive for the disease, but there have so far been six infections in the western U.S. and three deaths.
The plague is contracted to humans through fleas that feed on infected squirrels and other varmints. The disease, caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis that killed off one in three Europeans in the 14th century, can be treated with modern anti-biotics if caught in time. Delaying treatment could be fatal.
“Stay away from squirrels, chipmunks, and other rodents,” Johnson said. “And remember a crucial fact—if you are killing rodents, their fleas need a blood meal, and will migrate to your dog. If you sleep with your dog, you may be the next meal! These fleas survive at high altitude also.”
There have been two confirmed cases of hantavirus in one household in Mono County, the first ever household cluster reported in California. According to a Mono-Gram from August 10, one infected member was briefly hospitalized, but both have recovered. Johnson added that the death rate for the virus is more than 25 percent and it was a miracle that neither of the people became seriously ill.
Hantavirus has killed people on the Eastside in the past. An employee at Bodie State Park, Richard Johnson, no relation to the Public Health Officer, died from the virus in 2010. A Los Angeles man on vacation near Bridgeport in 2006 contracted the disease and died.
The virus is carried by rats and mice, particularly the Eastside local the deer mouse. The virus is shed by the varmints in their feces and urine. The virus becomes airborne when the fecal matter is stirred up as in cleaning an enclosed area and inhaled.
Ticks have been taking down their share of humans, too. There have been three laboratory confirmed cases of tick-borne relapsing fever (TBRF) reported. Johnson said that while not all those infected are Mono County residents, the County is the likely outbreak center. One person was hospitalized but all are now fine.
These are not ticks that carry Lyme disease. In fact Johnson added that more than 60 ticks were collected last summer and not one tested positive for Lyme disease. The TBRF carriers are tiny soft ticks that prefer to feed on rodents (See Carl’s quote above.)
According to the CDPH, the disease is rare but can cause serious illness, “About a week after being bitten by an infected tick, persons with TBRF develop a sudden high fever, chills, headache, and muscle aches. They may also have nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and a rash. These symptoms last three to five days, and then quickly disappear.
Symptoms occur again, and the cycle may continue for several weeks if not treated.
West Nile virus has reared its ugly head in the Golden State but hasn’t visited any locals yet. Johnson said there have been 18 human cases reported in the State thus far, including one death. But, “With our wet summer so far, the mosquito population is still thriving longer than usual.”
Mono County has mosquitoes that could carry the virus, but no bites so far. Humans get the virus after being bitten by an infected mosquito that got it from feeding on an infected mammal, usually crows, jays, ravens, and magpies. Tree squirrels can get infected too. For some birds and squirrels the infection can be fatal. Dead birds should be reported for testing. To report a dead bird, go to http://www.westnile.ca.gov/.
According to the website Fight the Bite at westnile.ca.gov, 80 percent of people infected show no symptoms. For a smaller percentage, one in 150 cases, symptoms include a “high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis. These symptoms may last several weeks, and neurological effects may be permanent. WNV infection can be fatal.”
Johnson explained that mosquitoes in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America, can cause an infection called “chikungunya.” This infection “is much like dengue fever. This has happened to 265 Americans so far this year! You probably won’t die, but the pain is bad enough you may want to die!
“And to really make things interesting, an alert Emergency Room physician recently diagnosed malaria in a returning traveler from Africa,” he added, “and we have had two persons at risk for Ebola visit the Eastern Sierra during the time they were at risk for becoming sick.”