California’s first plague case in 5 years has been reported on August 17, and he is a resident of South Lake Tahoe. The man is also the fifth case of plague in the United States this year, according to the El Dorado County health department.
The man is “currently under the care of a medical professional and is recovering at home,” according to a press release from El Dorado County. He’s described as an “avid walker” who was supposedly bitten by an infected flea in the Tahoe Keys area or along the “Truckee River Corridor” north of Highway 50.
“Health officials are investigating the situation,” officials said in the release.
The first case of plague recorded this year was a southwestern region man from Colorado, who tested positive for the virus in July, but he has recovered since then, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The second case was also reported in July, but in Arizona this time, according to the Navajo County public health officials. New Mexico documented two cases this year, including a death caused by the virus.
Even though everyone considers this disease as being very scary, experts explain that bacterial infection is not something to worry about.
“Bubonic plague in the U.S. is not the same scenario as the historical Black Death, and we do not need to be afraid of it in the same way,” Susan Jones, a professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior at the University of Minnesota College of Biological Sciences, said.
As data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows, the U.S. averages around seven cases of plague per year. The highest number ever recorded in America was in 2006, with 17 infected persons.
However, that number can vary from one year to another and it’s highly influenced by what’s going on in rodents. As you probably already know, the plague is caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacteria carried by fleas that live on rodents, such as rats, chipmunks, mice, rabbits, prairie dogs and squirrels. According to Jones, the chance of getting infected is higher when there is an outbreak of the bacterial infection among certain wild rodent populations.
“Plague waxes and wanes in the rodents. When a lot of rodents are infected and dying, plague can more easily spill over into nearby humans,” she explained.
America is handling plague very well, as five cases so far this year is not a threat to human lives, even though fatalities caused by this virus are not normal in the current context.
“It is unusual to have more than one plague-related death in the same year, and few cases result in death,” Dave Morgan, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Department of Health said.
However, the plague can be easily treated with antibiotics if caught in the early stages.
According to the CDC, July’s plague case from New Mexico was the first death recorded in four years in the U.S. To be more specific, in 2016 there were 16 documented infections, four of which sadly resulted in death.
Not much is known about the man who lost his life this year in New Mexico, however, he allegedly had the septicemic plague, rather than the more common bubonic plague, as data from the New Mexico Department of Health showed.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the same bacteria causes both bubonic plague and septicemic plague, the only difference is the part of the body that gets affected by the virus. The CDC explained that while the bubonic plague causes large, swollen lymph nodes, the septicemic plague causes a blood infection. The good news is neither one is contagious.
Septicemic plague “can occur as the first symptom of the plague, or may develop from untreated bubonic plague. This form results from bites of infected fleas or from handling an infected animal,” according to the CDC.
There’s also a third form, the pneumonic plague, the only one that is considered contagious and can spread from person to person. This form occurs when the lungs are infected, usually caused by the untreated bubonic or septicemic plague. It can also spread from inhaling an infected person’s droplets. According to the CDC, pneumonic plague is the most dangerous of all three.
“Early diagnosis is very important,” Jones said, adding that in several regions of the U.S. where plague is common, “physicians and veterinarians are on alert for symptoms of plague.”