A Utah man in his 70s has died after contracting the plague, bringing to four the number of deaths from the disease reported in the United States this year, health officials said today. Officials are still trying to determine how the Utah person contracted the disease, but believe it might have been spread by a flea or contact with a dead animal, according to the state Department of Health. "That's the most common way to get it," said JoDee Baker, an epidemiologist with the agency. "That's probably what happened, but we're still doing an investigation into that." State Health Department spokeswoman Charla Haley said the latest patient got the disease in Utah, possibly after being in rural areas and near campgrounds. The person was hospitalized about five days after coming down with symptoms, and died in mid-August at the University of Utah's Hospital.
Plague is naturally occurring in Utah rodents and is often seen in prairie dog populations, the Department of Health said. Wildlife and health officials confirmed in July that an outbreak of bubonic plague killed 60 to 80 prairie dogs in an eastern Utah colony. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 11 other cases have been reported in six states since April 1. The other three people who died were ages 16, 52, and 79. Anywhere between one and 17 cases of the illness have been reported each year in the US since 2000, according to the CDC. Deaths are rare, with no more than two a year having been recorded over the previous 15 years. Patients in a few of the 11 other cases this year came down with the plague after visiting Yosemite National Park in California. (Read more plague stories.)