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BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
health world

Bubonic plague is back -- this time in New Mexico man

May 09, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey / For the Booster Shots blog
  • A man was diagnosed with the bubonic plague in New Mexico, where squirrels and rodents can harbor fleas carrying the bacterium Yersinia pestis.
A man was diagnosed with the bubonic plague in New Mexico, where squirrels… (Annie Wells / Los Angeles…)

Bubonic plague is alive and, if not thriving, at least maintaining a presence in the United States. Just ask the New Mexico man who's now earned the distinction of becoming the first human plague case of 2011.

The 58-year-old Santa Fe County resident has been hospitalized and is recovering, say officials from the New Mexico Department of Health.

The folks there are likely less rattled than folks in the eastern U.S. would be. New Mexico has seen 262 human cases of bubonic plague between 1949 and 2010. Most recently, six people came down with the plague in 2009, including one 8-year-old boy who died.

Humans can get the plague from the bite of a flea carrying the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, and this happens with some regularity in the West. 

The fleas feed on wild rodents, such as the rock squirrel in the Southwest and the California ground squirrel in the Pacific states. Prairie dogs, wood rats, chipmunks and, less commonly, rabbits have also been known to carry infected fleas.

Cats and, less often, dogs can transmit the plague to humans as well -- by carrying fleas into the house or by contracting the plague themselves (through flea bites or by eating plague-infested rodents) and then biting or scratching humans. Very rarely, a cat can develop plague pneumonia and spread the disease by coughing. 

In the U.S., plague cases are relatively isolated, but rat-borne epidemics do still occur in some countries. In the U.S., the last rat-borne epidemic was in Los Angeles in 1924-25.

An early telltale sign of the plague is swollen, painful lymph nodes known as buboes. Without treatment, the illness can infect the blood (known as septicemic plague) and finally the lungs. At this point, the infection becomes known as plague pneumonia, or pneumonic plague. The mortality rate increases considerably at this point. In 2009, several people in China died from pneumonic plague after a herdsman apparently contracted the disease from his dog.

The New Mexico Department of Health recommends a variety of measures to reduce the risk of plague infection, such as not allowing pets to hunt, using flea control, taking sick pets to the veterinarian, and cleaning up brush piles and other areas near the house where rodents could live.

Health officials there also note that plague activity usually begins in the spring and continues into the summer. The folks there undoubtedly know something about the plague, so stay tuned.

healthkey@tribune.com

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