SALT LAKE CITY - A campground at Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah reopened Thursday after a three-week closure to make certain no traces remained of the bubonic plague, a disease sometimes known as the "Black Death."
The area was thoroughly doused with insecticides to kill fleas that carry the plague and could transmit it to humans, said Corky Hays, Natural Bridges superintendent.
"When people hear 'plague' they think of bubonic plague and the Middle Ages and half the population being wiped out," Hays said.
The National Park Service didn't want to risk any sort of outbreak after three dead deer mice found at the campground tested positive for the plague.
Hays said campers at the 13 sites were told April 28 that the campground would be closed the next morning - strictly as a precaution. Some of the campers felt safe enough to even offer to sign a waiver so they could stay at the site in the pinyon-juniper country, but Hays said the Park Service and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn't want to take any chances.
"We thought it was the wisest thing to do," Hays said.
Plague also has been found this spring in rodent populations at Mesa Verde National Park and Colorado National Monument.
Humans usually contract bubonic plague after being bitten by fleas that have bitten infected rodents.
Although the plague isn't as widespread as it was when it killed millions of people in the Middle Ages, it's still nasty stuff. Plague bacteria invade the bloodstream, where they spread rapidly throughout the body. Victims also have swollen and painful lymph glands.
About 18 human cases of the plague are reported each year in the United States, according to the CDC, and about one in seven victims dies. The U.S. hasn't had a major urban outbreak since the 1920s.
All human plague cases are reported to the CDC, and Utah hasn't had one since a Washington County man survived the disease in 2000, said Kenneth Gage, chief of the CDC's flea-borne disease laboratory in Fort Collins, Colo.
"It's a rare disease and the risks of getting it are quite low, but unfortunately it's a very serious disease and can be fatal if not treated properly," said Gage.
Developing countries with heavy rat populations tend to have more outbreaks.
The campsite, Natural Bridges visitor center, trailheads and residential area were dusted with insecticides. After follow-up tests, Natural Bridges was cleared to reopen the campsite Thursday, Hays said.
Park staff will continue to monitor the area, which is about 250 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
Gage said people can reduce their risk of getting the plague by simple methods, such as not handling dead rodents or other animals that may have infected fleas, using insect repellent and treating pets regularly for fleas.
Utah's varied terrain is prime area for animals that can carry the plague, including squirrels, chipmunks and prairie dogs.
"It's quite common in animal populations in the western third of the country," Gage said.