Peanut butter vaccine could protect prairie dogs and people from plague in Arizona

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

Arizona researchers are working on a peanut butter-flavored vaccine for prairie dogs, one they think will eventually help protect humans from the deadly plague bacteria.

The plague has now turned up in three Arizona counties this year: Navajo, Coconino and Apache, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. It’s the same bacteria that killed millions in Medieval Europe, but it can now be treated with antibiotics – if it’s caught early.

The disease is transferred by infected fleas that feed on rodents like prairie dogs, but occasionally bite humans or pets instead.

“By vaccinating prairie dogs for plague, we can reduce the potential exposure to people,” said Arizona Game and Fish Department veterinarian Anne Justice-Allen.

The Game and Fish Department is one of several agencies across the country working on a vaccine to protect the animals. The department has wrapped up trials on the vaccine’s efficacy and is now in phase three of the study: determining how and when to distribute the vaccine pellets.

“Should we distribute it in a ring-type situation, where we kind of put it on the perimeter of colony?” she said. “Or do we just want to distribute it over the whole colony relatively evenly?”

Protecting prairie dogs slows the circulation of plague in two ways, Justice-Allen said. If prairie dogs can fight off the disease on their own, fewer fleas will become infected. And if prairie dog colonies survive, infected fleas won’t have to search for other hosts to feed on.

Fleas carrying the plague appear in the Southwest every year, usually at elevations above 5,000 feet. Three people have been treated for the plague this year in New Mexico, but cases in Arizona are more rare.

Since 2000, only seven people have been infected with the plague in this state. Only one of those cases turned deadly: a case in Navajo County in 2007, said ADHS Public Information Officer Nicole Capone.

Justice-Allen said the prairie dog vaccine should be certified for use in the next year or so, making it just the second vaccine approved for use on wildlife. The first was the oral rabies vaccine.

“It's a very new process to be treating wildlife for disease that can affect people and/or domestic animals,” she said.

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Derek StaahlDerek Staahl is an Emmy Award-winning reporter and fill-in anchor who loves covering stories that matter most to Arizona families.

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Derek Staahl

This once-uncompromising "California guy" got his first taste of Arizona in 2015 while covering spring training baseball for his former station. The trip spanned just three days, but Derek quickly decided Phoenix should be his next address. He joined CBS 5 and 3TV four months later, in August 2015. Before packing his bags for the Valley of the Sun, Derek spent nearly four years at XETV in San Diego, where he was promoted to Weekend Anchor and Investigative Reporter. Derek chaired the Saturday and Sunday 10 p.m. newscasts, which regularly earned the station's highest ratings for a news program each week. Derek’s investigative reporting efforts into the Mayor Bob Filner scandal in 2013 sparked a "governance crisis" for the city of San Diego and was profiled by the region’s top newspaper. Derek broke into the news business at WKOW-TV in Madison, WI. He wrote, shot, edited, and presented stories during the week, and produced newscasts on the weekends. By the end of his stint, he was promoted to part-time anchor on WKOW’s sister station, WMSN. Derek was born in Los Angeles and was named the “Undergraduate Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year” in his graduating class at USC. He also played quads in the school’s famous drumline. When not reporting the news, Derek enjoys playing drumset, sand volleyball, and baseball.

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