Oct 162003
Authors: Willow Welter

A team of researchers at CSU will be able to invest more money

and energy into protecting humans from the plague, thanks to a

recent grant.

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

dog populations.

“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





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