Plague Suspected In Death Of Grand Canyon National Park Employee

Plague is suspected as the cause of death of a 37-year-old National Park Service employee at Grand Canyon National Park. Eric York, a wildlife biologist, was found dead in his home on the South Rim earlier this month.

Preliminary tests conducted by the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pointed to plague as the cause of death, according to park officials.


According to a park release, plague is a rare, but sometimes fatal, disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It is primarily a disease of animals, but it can be transmitted to humans through the bites of rodent fleas or by direct contact with infected animals. Though park officials are not certain about the source of his infection, Mr. York most likely became infected with plague from work-related exposures to wildlife.

Mr. York's symptoms were consistent with pneumonic plague, the most serious, but least common form of plague. In rare cases, pneumonic plague can spread person to person through aerosolized respiratory droplets (e.g. coughing, sneezing). According to the CDC, transmission of plague from person to person has not been observed in the United States since 1924.

Since pneumonic plague was initially suspected as a possible cause of Mr. York’s death, the Park Service has been working with the Grand Canyon Clinic to offer a seven-day course of prophylactic antibiotics to persons who had close contact (within six feet) with the young man while he was symptomatic.

These people have been contacted and are in the process of receiving medication.

Close contacts of Mr. York have also been informed to watch for symptoms consistent with plague and to seek medical attention as soon as possible if symptoms develop. Symptoms of pneumonic plague include fever, headache, chest pain, cough, and bloody saliva. Early treatment with antibiotics is essential to surviving plague.

According to park officials, plague is considered endemic in northern Arizona at elevations above 4,500 feet. While an average of one or two human cases of plague are reported each year in Arizona, there were no human cases reported from 2001 through 2006 in the state. Increased plague activity in Arizona was reported in 2007 to public health officials:

* one human case, who survived, was reported in Apache County;

* prairie dog colony die-offs in two separate neighborhoods in Flagstaff (Coconino County) were confirmed to be from plague, and;

* a domestic pet cat from north of Prescott (Yavapai County) was also documented as infected with plague.

Park officials say Mr. York had direct contact with both wild rodents and mountain lions, which put him at a higher risk for plague than other park staff and the general public. Persons living, working, or visiting areas where plague is known to be present can take the following precautions to reduce their risk of exposure:

* 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 repellent 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, and;

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

The NPS plans to collaborate with its public health partners to assess the risk for plague and other zoonotic diseases at Grand Canyon National Park.

Comments

I saw this on an episode of the old Jack Klugman series, "Quincy, M.E.", except the infection was initiated by a nest of decaying squirrels in a Native American burial ground, and it was mostly the local Native construction workers building a hotel / casino that were affected. Who says TV doesn't imitate real life?

Our thought and prayers (if you do such things) should be with the fine young ranger and his family who in all likelihood, did nothing wrong but perform his daily tasks as an investigative biologist.

I hope nobody confuses this manner of infection, in which "The Plague" induced acute pneumonia (hence the name pnuemonic plague,) which the original "Black Death" that swept through Europe a few hundred years back. This is an EXTREMELY rare mutation, albeit an extremely virulent manifestation. But this is a HIGHLY infectious but highly TREATABLE form, and unlike Mersa, our current strains of antibiotics will get you up and running again within 10-14 days, PROVIDED you seek assistance prior to the pneumonia becoming too deeply rooted in your respiratory tract. This lung complication is also the mechanism by which the infection becomes transient; the heavy cough, expelling "lung snots" and the omni-present respiratory mist facilitates a perfect medium by which transfer of bacterial laden specimens are readily passed from person to person without direct "personal" contact. But if you've been in this area and you're feeling "like a cold is coming on" or you're ignoring flu-like symptoms, and you start coughing up bloody discharges, you'd best get to a source of serious antibiotics PRONTO. Ignoring these conditions, given the strain of pathogen to which you may have been exposed, could be the last thing you'll even do on this Earth. But having stated that, I wouldn't avoid GCNP due to this one isolated instance either. At least I'm not altering my vacation plans.

i hope all of you who feel so inclined to report on one of few truly decent people, take into account the fact that people who will actually miss him, may be reading all of your garbage........and not caring to see a picture of kurt repanshek(whoever that is) when they are trying to research what exactly happened to an extremely good man,

Seth-

You're obviously very close to the situation that happened with Mr. York, and as such I hope you will accept my most sincere condolences on the loss of your comrade. I never professed any knowledge of Eric, but I too feel a loss whenever a member of our brotherhood passes, whether after a long and distinguished career or most prematurely, as it was in this case.

I'm also sorry that you didn't locate the information, biographical or otherwise, that you were seeking when you chose to investigate this column. But Kurt, one of the editors and co-founders of this site, handled the posting of what information was available at the moment in a much more sensitive and humane manner than did say, the original AP story that I picked up on via another "strictly news" site. I'm sure your anger towards the editor was mostly a result of the frustration you felt at not being able to resource the depth of information which you were seeking. But the columns that appear within the scope of this site are hardly the stuff of which the term
"garbage" would be a proper classification. What this site is meant to be is an exchange of ideas, opinions, information, et.al. on a variety of topics, mostly related to issues on a wide scope of within the auspices of the NPS. Since your friend was in the employ of the park services, this story was indeed appropriate. If you would care to enlighten all of the readers and contributors, like myself, to any additional information that you might be willing to share regarding more specific details of the circumstances surrounding the passing of Mr. York, I know that many people would be most interested in your findings.

Again, as a fellow biological scientist of your friend Eric, please accept my deepest sympathies.

hi, my name is bill and i had been suspected of contracting pnuemonic plague back in the early 1980's in kitsap county, wa. state. there, i had been in contact with a stray cat that had been living under the buildings in the area and it had been eating the rats and rabbits that were found to be dwelling in a make-shift gravesite that had washed out due to some bank erosion. the gravesite contained the remnants of immigrant loggers and other workers, or so said some of the elderly residents in the area, and the such, and whatever was exposed in the site was being pilfered by the rodents. the cats were eating them, and apparently contracted something that, when this one cat in particular, i don't know if it was when it scratched me or when it sneezed all over my arm when i tried to chase it away from my open window, gave me something that i hope i never encounter again. i got so sick that i barely made it to a hospital. i can understand how this man in this article died and i think it is so tragic. my thoughts on how this occurred is, that just like the unrecorded burial site that spawned the incident in wa. state, maybe there are other sites doing the same, or that the infected animals that come into contact with the infection are so sparsely spread apart in the wild that the chances of a hit or miss are rare, but the infection could be getting slowly worse by the animals eating other infected animals. do the wildlife officials test for this infection or other types on a regular basis, just curiously concerned.

Congratulations on dodging a bullet, Bill. Some of these infections have proven fatal. The NPS is finally giving zoonotic diseases like pnuemonic plague and tularemia the attention they deserve. The results of the NPS zoonotic disease survey should be a big help in devising more effective preventive measures. As new information becomes available we'll report it right here in Traveler.