Five plague-infected squirrels and a wild rabbit found in a Denver park are a reminder that Coloradans should take precautions to protect themselves from the potentially deadly disease, health officials say.

The animals' carcasses were tested after a resident near City Park noticed a dieoff of squirrels - a sign of the disease.

Plague is transmitted by fleas, and people can be exposed through contact with wild animals or their pets.

"We know it's here," said Rick Miklich, director of environmental health for the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment. "What we're trying to do is find out where and how much, and then to prepare people about what to do about it."
The most recent human case of plague in El Paso County was in 1991.

Before that, a fatal case involving a child at the Air Force Academy occurred in 1984.

Of the 58 known cases of human plague statewide since 1957, nine were fatal, according to an epidemiologist with the state Health Department.
In 2004, three human cases - one of them fatal - were reported.
Four cases were reported in both 2005 and 2006; none were fatal.
"If it's caught early enough, it's highly treatable," Miklich said.

Symptoms include sudden high fever, chills, nausea, muscle pain and painful or swollen lymph glands.

Miklich said the best protection from infected fleas is to ensure pets aren't allowed to roam outside and to rodentproof the area around homes.
"Don't feed the critters that come by," he said.

"Don't attract them to where you're living because nothing good's going to come of that."


To protect yourself from plague, health officials recommend:
- Don't handle dead rodents, and report animal die-offs to the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment at 575-8635.
- Keep cats indoors. Cats, more than dogs, are highly susceptible to plague.
- Treat pets for fleas.
- Clear property of lumber piles and trash bins, where rodents often live or hide.
- Take down feeders that might attract squirrels.