Kyrgyz teen dies from bubonic plague after eating marmot

File photo of a Yellow Bellied Marmot. Rodents like marmots can harbor plague bacteria and spread the disease.
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Health officials are moving to stave off an outbreak of bubonic plague in Kyrgyzstan, quarantining 160 people after a 15-year-old boy who ate marmot meat died from the disease last week, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Health said Wednesday.

Four people in the Central Asian country have been hospitalized, according to the healthy ministry.

The boy told medics he had eaten barbecued marmot, a large ground squirrel that typically lives in mountainous areas, while camping in the mountains the previous week, officials said.

The health ministry established a quarantine in parts of the county's mountainous northeast, but said that there was no risk of an epidemic.

Four residents in the boy's village were hospitalized on Wednesday after complaining of fever, though none had contact with the boy.

Several thousand cases of bubonic plague are reported each year worldwide. People can contract the disease after being bitten by an infected insect or animal or coming into close contact with an infected animal, for instance when a hunter removes an animal's skin.

Plague, or the "black death," killed an estimated one-third of Europeans during the 14th century. It is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, found often in rats and the fleas that feed off of them.

Bubonic plague is one of the disease's three forms. It is characterized by inflammation of the tonsils, adenoids, spleen and thymus, causing symptoms such as fever, aches, chills and swollen, tender lymph glands (called buboes).

The other forms are septicemic plague, which occurs when the Yersinia bacteria multiply in the blood, potentially leading to fever, chills, internal bleeding and shock, and pneumonic plague, the most serious form of the disease, which is caused by the bacteria entering the lungs.

Plague infections are significantly more likely to occur in Africa and Asia than in the United States though some infections do occur stateside, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes.

A squirrel captured in a trap in Los Angeles County tested positive for bubonic plague in July, forcing the closure of campgrounds at the Angeles National Forest. No people were infected.

But about five to fifteen cases of plague do occur in people each year in the western United States, according to the CDC.

A 7-year-old Colorado girl contracted the disease from infected insects in August 2012 while trying to bury a dead squirrel. Sierra Jane Downing of Pagosa Springs was discharged from the hospital about two weeks later after being treated with antibiotics.

An Oregon man became ill in June 2012 after attempting to get a mouse out of a stray cat's mouth. The 59-year-old victim, Paul Gaylord, survived, but the welder had his fingertips and toes amputated. A friend of Gaylord's who had helped him was also infected.

Today, the disease is easily treated with antibiotics and can be cured if caught early.

The CDC has more information on its Frequently Asked Questions About Plague website.