A team of researchers at CSU will be able to invest more money
and energy into protecting humans from the plague, thanks to a
Two federal agencies announced Tuesday they will present the
university with a $1.2 million grant for a five-year Ecology of
Infectious Diseases study. The National Science Foundation and the
National Institutes of Health awarded the money to specifically
research how climate can affect outbreaks of the plague.
“It’s a gigantic relief having your research ideas validated by
being ‘shown the money,'” said Michael Antolin, associate professor
of biology and principle investigator for the grant.
Antolin said he hopes the research produces two effects. First,
he wants the researchers to predict how a disease like plague
persists in this environment. Second, he hopes their observations
help them “predict over the long term how plague will affect
prairie dogs and associated wildlife species on the western Great
Up to 3,000 worldwide cases of plague in humans are diagnosed
each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. The CDC also reported that Colorado is included in the
top two regions with the highest incidence of plague.
“(It’s) probably because we have a reasonably sized human
population that’s pushed up mostly along the foothills,” Antolin
said. “The closer you are to the foothills the higher the
prevalence of plague cases.”
The last Larimer County plague case was at Red Feather Lakes in
1999, Antolin said.
The research group, headed by Antolin and CSU professor Colleen
Webb, includes colleagues from CSU, the CDC and California State
University at Fullerton. They will examine ecological aspects of
rodent-borne plague outbreaks, particularly in black-tailed prairie
“Essentially we’ll be registering observations made of the
prairie dog community,” Webb said. “Also we’re keeping in touch
with other scientists who study plague.”
Specifically the investigators want to discover whether
environmental factors influence outbreaks of the disease, and what
those factors are.
“CSU is becoming one of the premier places in the U.S. for
studying infectious diseases,” Antolin said.
Currently, observations have indicated a correlation between El
Nino and plague outbreaks, Webb said. It may be onset by warmer,
wetter winters, but Webb said these conclusions are still unclear,
which is why the team will conduct this research.
The site of research is northeast of Fort Collins on the Pawnee
National Grassland along with plague studies conducted by the Short
Grass Steppe Long Term Ecological Research Project.
Along with the four professors leading the research project,
several graduate and undergraduate students will help with the
Antolin applied for the grant in February, when he sent a
proposal to the National Science Foundation. A panel of scientists
from the foundation then reviewed the proposal and considered it,
ultimately deciding to bestow CSU with the grant. The National
Institutes of Health is the other federal agency that helped
provide the grant.
A rodent flea bite normally causes the plague in humans,
according to a CDC report. The same report said antibiotics are
usually effective against plague, but an infected person left
untreated is likely to become ill or die.
“Plague’s actually pretty difficult to get,” Antolin said.
Symptoms of bubonic plague include a swollen gland, fever,
chills, headache and extreme exhaustion, according to the CDC Web
site, www.cdc.gov. A person should have heightened worries if she
or he has possibly been exposed to infected rodents, rabbits or