November 10, 2007

Plague Death in Arizona: The Dangers of Biology

A field biologist working at the Grand Canyon in Arizona has died due to pneumonic plague (Yersinia pestis) infection, most likely contracted from fleas present on a mountain lion:

Plague Suspected In Death Of Man In Arizona

Eric York, a 37 year old wildlife biologist who worked at the Grand Canyon National Park who was found dead at his home on the South Rim of the Canyon in Arizona on November 2nd, probably died of the plague caught while carrying out an autopsy on a mountain lion that had probably died of the disease a week earlier.

Plague, due to the bacterium Yersinia pestis, was confirmed as the likely cause of death following preliminary laboratory tests at the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

York had been treated at a local clinic for flu like symptoms that started three days after he did the autopsy, but nothing more serious than that was diagnosed at the time. When he was found dead health officials suspected either plague or hantavirus that causes a type of hemorrhagic fever, and immediately tracked down 49 people who had been in recent contact with him so they could have aggressive antibiotic treatment. None of them has become ill.

Plague is primarily a disease of animals and rarely infects humans, who can catch it from being bitten by rodent fleas or, as is suspected in the case of York, from direct contact with infected animals. York' symptoms were similar to those of pneumonic plague, the most serious, but least common form of plague.

Plague can be passed on from one human to another, and from animals to humans, through coughing and sneezing, which thrusts infected droplets into the air that is then breathed in by others. However, according to the CDC, human to human infection is rare, and their records show the last time this happened in the US was in 1924...
The last known human pneumonic plague infection before this year occurred in 2000. There has been one other infection this year, but the victim was treated with antibiotics and made a full recovery.

Field biology has numerous hazards, including everything from large carnivores to poisonous reptiles to rare diseases. Unfortunately for York, one of the hazards finally caught up with him in the worst possible way. There is a notion among those outside of science that biologists live in some sort of protected ivory tower, but the truth is that many of the students of the life sciences don't. Even if one has never seen someone like Brady Barr in action on a nature show, though, one should keep in mind that life is simultaneously wondrous and dangerous at the same time. Coming to understand it means that someone, somewhere, is always out risking their lives to bring back a new bit of knowledge for all of our benefit. Most of them, like York, don't do things that make for good TV, so most people go through life totally unaware of the work they do. Like York, most biologists aren't paid tremendous sums of money. They do what they do because there is nothing they'd rather be doing with their lives. They take the precautions they can, as in any hazardous job, but the risk of injury or death to wildlife biologists, disease researchers, and even humble field mycologists, can never be eliminated. I've unintentionally pissed off a few rattlesnakes in my time, so take my word on that one.

York was a young man, and so his death is tragic. I'm sure he didn't go into biology to be a hero, so I won't call him one. I'll say this much, though; when people ask me about my plans for retirement, I always tell them that I don't plan to retire. I plan to keel over dead in some rain forest while hunting after new species, or else collapse at a lab bench while extracting DNA from some strange Siberian mushroom. I'd much rather go out like York than I would like to decay slowly in some planned adult golf course community somewhere. I just hope that York felt the same way about his work; I hope it was his passion. In a sense, that must take some of the sting out of death by mountain lion-vectored plague for those he leaves behind. Don't we all want those words included in our eulogies... "He died doing what he loved."

Sphere: Related Content