The Plague! In New Mexico?
On June 26, 2017, the New Mexico Department of Health confirmed its 3rd case of Plague for 2017. Fortunately, no deaths have been reported. Historically, Plague’s presence has had a devastating effect on past civilizations.
There have been 3 recorded major Plague pandemics, meaning the disease spread over a wide geographical area:
· The Justinian Plague: The 1st recorded pandemic was named after the 6th century Byzantine emperor, Justinian I. It began in 541 AD and killed over 25 million people
· The 2nd plague pandemic was widely known as the Black Death or the Great Plague. It originated in China in 1334 and spread along trade routes to Europe, where it claimed an estimated 60% of the European population
· The 3rd pandemic, the Modern Plague, began in China in the 1860s and appeared in Hong Kong by 1894. Over the next 20 years, it spread to port cities around the world by rats on steamships. It caused approximately 10 million deaths. During this last pandemic, scientists identified the causative agent as a bacterium and determined that plague is spread by infectious flea bites
The bacteria that cause plague, yersinia pestis, maintain their existence in a cycle involving infected rodents and their fleas. Fleas become infected by feeding on rodents, such as chipmunks, prairie dogs, ground squirrels, mice, and rats. Fleas then transmit plague bacteria to humans and other mammals during a subsequent feeding. (The photo is of a flea)
Types of Plague:
· Bubonic Plague: Patients develop a sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, and weakness, and one or more swollen, tender, and painful lymph nodes (called buboes). This form is usually the result of an infected flea bite. The bacteria multiply in the lymph node closest to where the bacteria entered the human body
· Septicemic Plague (blood infection): Patients develop fever, chills, extreme weakness, abdominal pain, shock, and possibly bleeding into the skin and other organs. Skin and other tissues may turn black and die, especially on fingers, toes, and nose. This form results from bites of infected fleas or from handling an infected animal
· Pneumonic Plague: Patients develop fever, headache, weakness, and a rapidly developing pneumonia with shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, and sometimes bloody or watery mucous. Pneumonic plague may develop from inhaling infectious droplets or from untreated bubonic or septicemic plague that spreads to the lungs. It is the most serious form of the disease
Transmission of Plague to Humans:
· Flea bites: Plague bacteria are most often transmitted by the bite of an infected flea. Dogs and cats may bring plague-infected fleas into the home
· Contact with contaminated fluid or tissue: Humans can become infected when handling tissue or body fluids of a plague-infected animal. For example, a hunter skinning an infected rabbit without using proper precautions could become infected with plague bacteria
· Infectious droplets: When a person has plague pneumonia, they may cough droplets containing plague bacteria into air. If these bacteria-containing droplets are breathed in by another person, they can cause pneumonic plague. Transmission of these droplets is the only way that plague can spread between people
A diagnosis of plague is made by testing the blood, sputum (phlegm), or lymph node tissue. Once the laboratory receives the sample, preliminary results can be ready in less than two hours. Laboratory confirmation usually takes 24 to 48 hours.
Plague can be successfully treated with antibiotics. Once suspected, the patient is hospitalized and, in the case of pneumonic plague, medically isolated (placed in a protected room designed to prevent transmission). Antibiotic treatment begins as soon as possible after laboratory specimens are taken.
Plague was first introduced into the U.S. in 1900. Between 1900 and 2012, 1006 confirmed or suspected cases have occurred. Over 80% of U.S. plague cases have been the bubonic form. In recent decades, an average of 7 human plague cases is reported each year (1-17 cases per year). Plague occurs in rural and semi-rural areas of the western U.S. It is most common in the southwestern states, particularly New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. Worldwide, from 2010 to 2015, there were 3,248 cases reported, including 584 deaths.
· Reduce rodent habitat. Remove brush, rock piles, junk, cluttered firewood, and rodent food supplies, such as pet and wild animal food. Make buildings rodent-proof
· Wear gloves if handling or skinning potentially infected animals. Contact your health department if you have questions about disposal of dead animals
· Use repellent if you think you could be exposed to rodent fleas during activities. Products containing DEET can be applied to the skin as well as clothing and products containing permethrin can be applied to clothing (always follow instructions on the label)
· Keep fleas off of your pets by applying flea control products approved by your veterinarian. Animals that roam freely are more likely to come in contact with plague-infected animals or fleas and could bring them into homes. If your pet becomes sick, seek care from a veterinarian
· Do not allow dogs or cats that roam free where plague is present to sleep on your bed
· Don’t leave your pet’s food and water where mice can get to it
· There currently is no plague vaccine available in the U.S.
For more information about Plague, visit the CDC at https://www.cdc.gov/Plague