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Wild rodents such as prariedogs carry Yersinia pestis


Plague, caused by a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, is a disease of wild rodents that can afflict people. In the past century, plague caused severe epidemics in many parts of the world, resulting in human deaths and severe economic losses. Human cases of plague in the U.S., while not numerous, are largely due to contact with infected rodents. As residential areas encroach on plague outbreak or endemic areas, tracking trends in plague transmission becomes more and more critical. Ground-dwelling rodents, like prairie dogs in the western U.S. are particularly susceptible to plague. Prairie dogs are considered a "keystone" species, serving a critical role in maintaining the biotic diversity and integrity of the western grasslands. Sylvatic plague was specifically identified as the most serious threat to the continued existence of the black-tailed prairie dog species over significant areas of its range.

USGS National Wildlife Health Center scientists are working on an effective means for protecting prairie dogs and other wild and peridomestic rodents from plague. Protection strategies are critical: 1) reduce the incidence and potential of zoonotic transmission of the disease to humans; 2) to reduce the population decline of threatened rodent species; and 3) enhance the recovery potential of highly endangered black-footed ferrets. Historically, attempts to control plague epizootics in prairie dog colonies relied on rodent poisoning and manual application of insecticides in burrows to reduce flea vectors. Neither of these methods is satisfactory, particularly for threatened and endangered species. Poisoning can have environmental impacts and often such damage is done long before the outbreak is detected.

Recent advances in biotechnology have permitted the development of safe and effective vaccines that can be used for controlling and preventing diseases in wildlife. Development of an effective vaccine that can be delivered orally could be useful in protecting not only black-tailed prairie dogs, but the endangered black-footed ferrets that depend on them for food and shelter.

USGS Research Related to Plague

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