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S P E C I A L El Niño Returns

A new outbreak of the plague? Blame El Niño

Puddles of standing water provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes  
April 12, 1998
Web posted at: 11:21 p.m. EDT (0321 GMT)

From Medical Correspondent Al Hinman

SAN BERNARDINO, California (CNN) -- El Niño has been blamed for tornadoes, floods, mudslides and torrential rains. Now California health officials fear the weather pattern could spawn an outbreak of bubonic plague.

Standing water left by the rain and flooding could lead to diseases borne by pests that thrive in stagnant water, officials say.

"Our concerns are that there's a greater amount of standing water in more places and it will be there for longer periods of time," said Joseph Krygier, an environmental health specialist.

Among the fears is a bumper crop of mosquitoes capable of transmitting to humans several potentially deadly diseases, including encephalitis.

Pest control experts also worry that El Niño's heavy rains have produced conditions that could lead to a rodent explosion in the mountains east of Los Angeles.

Heavy rains are feared to have produced conditions ripe for a rodent explosion  

More rodents raises the risk of an outbreak of the bubonic plague, the so-called "black death" that killed millions in Europe during the Middle Ages.

"Because of the increased rainfall, the environment will support possibly more ground squirrels than it did last year and there would be more fleas on those squirrels, so there would be an increased potential for that disease to proliferate in the environment," Krygier said.

Bubonic plague is a contagious disease transmitted by fleas from infected rodents and is characterized by fever, prostration, swollen lymph nodes and delirium.

In New Mexico, health officials fear an outbreak of hantavirus, which causes flu-like symptoms and sometimes leads to a fatal lung or kidney disease. Hantavirus is spread by contact with rodent urine and feces.

"We have gotten better at recognizing, diagnosing and treating it," said Dr. Diane Goade of the University of New Mexico. "But it still remains a rapidly progressing, very severe disease with a very high mortality rate, one of the highest mortality rates of any infectious diseases we see."

The last major outbreak of hantavirus five years ago was blamed on another El Niño weather pattern.

"Young people were coming in and crashing in front of our eyes," Goade said. "It was incredibly frightening."

Health officials emphasize they aren't trying to scare anyone but they are concerned about the health risks posed by pests thriving on El Nino's aftereffects.

Officials are already working overtime to control mosquitoes and rodents before any problems arise.

El Nino returns
The Forecast  |  Prediction Meter  |  Ground Zero
The Wet Coast  |  Strange Brew  |  The Trackers

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