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Wed, Oct. 21

Plague kills Grand Canyon wildlife biologist
Precautionary regimen of antibiotics recommended for those who came in contact with biologist

Preliminary lab tests indicate that pneumonic plague killed a 37-year-old wildlife biologist who was found dead in his home at Grand Canyon National Park last week.

Tissue samples from the biologist, Eric York, as well as from a mountain lion carcass on which he'd performed an autopsy before becoming sick, tested positive for plague DNA, said Dr. David Wong, a medical epidemiologist on detail to the Park Service from the U.S. Public Health Service.

"We feel pretty comfortable that he got plague from the close contact with the animal," Wong said.

The mountain lion, one of several radio-collared cats in a research study York was conducting in the park, died in a backcountry area seldom reached by visitors. According to Dr. Elisabeth Lawaczeck, a state public health veterinarian, the lion's remains showed no sign of trauma that might have caused its death.

York, who was found dead in his home on the morning of Nov. 2, became ill a few days after the autopsy and visited the clinic at Grand Canyon on Oct. 30.

Wong said at that point in his illness would not have been in the acute phase and would have presented as generalized flu symptoms.

Earlier in the week, investigators were exploring hantavirus and plague as two of the strongest possibilities based on his symptoms, preliminary autopsy findings and the nature of his work. At the outset, they'd eliminated anthrax and bird flu.

Public health officials recommended a seven-day regimen of precautionary antibiotic treatment for about 50 people who came within six feet of York when he was symptomatic.

Yersina pestis, the bacteria that causes plague, is considered endemic in northern Arizona at elevations above 4,500 feet. Rodents carry it and infected fleas spread it further. It can also come from infected house pets with cats being most susceptible. The pneumonic form, which is both the most rare and most serious form, is also transmissible from person to person.

Plague responds to early treatment with antibiotics - the course ordered for those who came within six feet of York in the week before his death.

Though both infectious agents are prevalent throughout the southwest, human cases are extremely rare. In Coconino County, the last case of human plague was reported in 1996.

York worked for Grand Canyon National Park for two years. He was a native of Massachusetts.

The National Park Service and public health officials offer the following advice:

• Do not handle sick or dead animals.

• Prevent pets from roaming loose.

• Control fleas on pets with flea collars or flea sprays routinely.

• Avoid exposure to rodent burrows and fleas and wild animals.

• Use insect repellant when visiting or working in areas where plague might be active or rodents might be present.

• Wear rubber gloves when cleaning or skinning wild animals.

• Domestic cats are susceptible to plague. Cat owners should take their ill cats to a veterinarian for evaluation.

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