What You Need to Know About Human Plague After Suspected Case in Colorado

A rare case of the plague is being investigated in Pueblo County by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment after preliminary test results are available, a statement said.

The plague is a bacterial infection that was historically very deadly but is now more treatable. Although not completely eradicated, “human-to-human transmission of bubonic plague is rare,” according to the World Health Organization.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of seven cases of plague in humans are reported each year in the United States. Most cases occur in the West, particularly in northern New Mexico and Arizona.

In February, a human case of plague was confirmed in rural Oregon. The unnamed person there was believed to have been infected by a domestic cat, which was showing symptoms, health officials said. The case was identified and treated early, “and posed little risk to the community.”

What is the plague and how does it spread?

The plague is caused by a zoonotic bacteria scientifically known as Yersinia pestis. It is transmitted by fleas and occurs naturally in wild rodents.

Bubonic plague, the most common form, is characterized by painful, swollen lymph nodes or “buboes.” The bacteria multiply in a lymph node near where they entered the human body from a flea bite and can spread through the bloodstream if left untreated.

Other symptoms may include sudden fever and chills, severe headache, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting, according to the Colorado Department of Health. Symptoms generally develop after an incubation period of one to seven days, according to the WHO.

Plague occurs naturally and can infect people and their pets. People can get plague from the bites of infected fleas, by touching infected animals, or by inhaling droplets from the cough of an infected person or animal. “We advise all individuals to protect themselves and their pets from plague,” the Colorado Department of Health said in a statement.

What is the treatment for the plague?

“Plague can be successfully treated with antibiotics, but an infected person must be treated promptly to prevent serious complications or death,” said Alicia Solis, program manager for the Pueblo Department of Public Health.

Plague can be a serious disease in humans and can be fatal if left untreated. “If plague patients do not receive specific antibiotic therapy, all forms of plague can quickly lead to death,” the CDC says.

Typically, blood and other samples, such as sputum or pus, are taken from a bubo. If plague is diagnosed, antibiotics are given as standard treatment and the patient may be medically isolated. “Early diagnosis and early treatment can save lives,” according to the WHO.

There is no widely available vaccine against the plague. Improved sanitation and better living conditions and health care have helped to contain the disease.

The bubonic plague wiped out tens of millions of people in Europe in the 14th century, earning it the name Black Death. A handful of cases occur each year in the United States and around the world, although the disease is much less common and is now much more treatable with antibiotics.

Between 1900 and 2012, there were 1,006 confirmed or probable human cases of plague in the United States, according to the CDC. Bubonic plague accounts for more than 80 percent of plague cases in the U.S.

Plague can occur in rural and semi-rural areas of the western United States, “primarily in semi-arid upland forests and grasslands where many species of rodents may be involved,” according to the CDC. Many types of animals can be affected by plague, including rock squirrels, wood rats, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, chipmunks, mice, voles, and rabbits.

The last urban outbreak of rat plague in the United States occurred in Los Angeles in 1924-1925, the CDC said.

Worldwide, plague cases since the 1990s have occurred mainly in Africa, according to the WHO. The three most endemic countries are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Peru, according to the WHO.

According to the Pueblo County Public Health Department, there are several ways to prevent contracting or spreading the plague, including:

  • Remove areas where rodents can hide and breed around your home, garage, shed or recreational area.
  • Avoid contact with dead animals.
  • Treat dogs and cats regularly for fleas. Flea collars have not been shown to be effective.
  • Do not allow pets to hunt or roam in areas where rodents are present, such as prairie dog colonies.
  • Store pet food in rodent-proof containers.
  • If you develop symptoms of the plague, see a doctor immediately.

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