Public Health urges residents to take steps to protect themselves this summer

Plague, West Nile Virus and hantavirus more common during the summer months

El Paso County, CO – With the summer months upon us, El Paso County Public Health (EPCPH) is urging residents to protect themselves and their pets against diseases that can spread from insects, such as West Nile Virus, plague and hantavirus.

Areas of the southwest U.S.—including Colorado—received record levels of precipitation this year, which is creating conditions for mosquitoes, fleas, and rodent populations to increase, more so than would typically be seen. Due to this, EPCPH anticipates an increase in the spread of preventable diseases in people and pets that are seen during summer months.

“Summer is when people spend more time outdoors, enjoying activities our state has to offer, such as camping, fishing, or barbecuing with family and friends. As you take advantage of the warmer temperatures, please take steps to protect yourself against serious summertime diseases,” said Dr. Bernadette Albanese, co-medical director of El Paso County Public Health. “We want people to enjoy the outdoors safely by following simple prevention tips.”


Plague is an infection most commonly spread to people by the bite of an infected flea but can also be spread by handling infected animal tissues. Fleas become infected with plague by biting an infected rodent. Once the flea is infected, they can spread it to people and pets by biting them. Symptoms include sudden fever, headache, chills, weakness, and tender, painful lymph nodes; pneumonia and blood infection can rarely occur.

Take the following precautions to protect yourself and your pets:

  • Treat all pets for fleas according to a veterinarian’s advice.
  • Keep pets away from wildlife, especially dead rodents and rabbits.
  • Keep pets on a leash and out of wild rodent habitats. Don’t let dogs or cats chase and capture prairie dogs, rodents or rabbits.
  • Avoid keeping woodpiles near your home where rodents can harbor.
  • Do not directly handle any wildlife, such as squirrels, rabbits, or rodents.
  • When removing a dead animal carcass near your home, use a long-handled shovel or another tool to stay away from the carcass.
  • Do not feed wildlife. This attracts them to your property, brings them in close contact, and increases the risk of the disease spreading to you.
  • Stay out of areas where wild rodents live. If you enter areas inhabited by wild rodents, wear insect repellent and tuck your pant cuffs into your socks to prevent flea bites.
  • Be aware of rodent and rabbit populations in your area and report sudden die-offs or multiple dead animals to EPCPH at (719) 578-3220.


Hantavirus is an infection that causes serious pneumonia, damage to organs, and even death. It is carried by rats and mice and is most commonly spread to people by inhaling dust contaminated with rodent saliva, urine or droppings. Infections in humans typically occur in May, June and July.

Initial symptoms include fever, chills, severe muscle pain, headache, stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. These symptoms are followed by progressively worsening cough and difficulty breathing due to fluid buildup in the lungs. People with hantavirus infection need to be hospitalized, often in an intensive care unit. Delayed care can result in death.

Follow these steps to reduce the chance of getting exposed to hantavirus:

  • Avoid contact with wild rodents, including squirrels. Do not feed or handle them.
  • Prevent rodent infestations around your house:
    • Clear plants and materials away from outside walls.
    • Reduce outdoor access to food items.
    • Keep garbage cans tightly sealed.
    • Fill structural holes in homes or buildings on your property with wire screening, steel wool or cement.
  • If you need to enter a building (such as a garage, shed, cabin, or barn) that has been infrequently used or has rodent infestation:
    • Wear a mask and gloves.
    • Open all doors and windows in the building for 30 minutes and leave the area during this time.
    • Do NOT sweep or vacuum up mouse or rat urine, droppings, or nests. This can increase your risk of inhaling the virus.
    • Spray areas where urine, feces, and dust have accumulated using one of the following preferred disinfectants: General-purpose household disinfectant cleaning product (confirm the word “Disinfectant” is included on the label), or a bleach solution made with 1.5 cups of household bleach in 1 gallon of water (or 1 part bleach to 9 parts water). Make bleach solution fresh before use.
    • Use paper towels to wipe up the urine or droppings. Mop the area using the disinfectant.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning or after any exposure to animal urine or feces.

West Nile Virus

West Nile Virus (WNV) is most commonly spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on infected birds. Infected mosquitoes then spread West Nile Virus to people and other animals by biting them.

WNV typically occurs in the summer months, though it depends on climate and weather conditions. Most people infected with WNV do not experience illness, however 1 in 5 infected people will have a fever illness that is like the flu. Serious WNV infection of the brain or tissues around the brain can occur in about 1 in 150 infected people; those most at risk are people aged 60 years and older or those with diabetes, kidney disease, or weak immune systems.

With heavy rain in May and June, there is an early start to mosquito season in El Paso County and Colorado. Public health anticipates higher than average mosquito activity now and into the coming weeks.

Avoid getting mosquito bites by:

  • Limit time outdoors during the times of day when mosquitoes are most active, typically around dusk and dawn.
  • Use an EPA-registered insect repellent, such as DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
  • Wear loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and pants especially when outdoors around dusk and dawn.
  • Frequently drain standing water from areas around the house such as bird baths, portable pools, tires, and planters.
  • Use screens on windows and doors. Repair holes in screens to keep mosquitoes outdoors.


NEWS RELEASE – Public Heath urges residents to take steps to protect themselves this summer

Pamela Preston

Deputy Public Health Information Officer

(cell) 719-244-8216

El Paso County, CO