Health officials in Deschutes County, Oregon, confirmed a rare case of human plague in a local resident last week, marking the first case reported in the state since 2015. Officials said the individual had probably been infected by their pet cat, which showed symptoms of the disease.
“All close contacts of the resident and their pet have been contacted and given medications to prevent illness,” Dr. Richard Fawcett, Deschutes County Health Officer, said in a news release Wednesday.
No other cases of plague emerged during their investigation, officials in the mostly rural central Oregon county said.
“Fortunately, this case was identified and treated at an early stage of illness, posing little risk to the community,” the statement said.
Although the bubonic plague may seem like something out of the history books, this isn’t the first time in recent years that we’ve seen the disease appear in the United States.
In 2020, California reported its. Authorities said at the time that the patient, a resident of the South Lake Tahoe area, was recovering at home. Two were in 2015.
Although reports of the plague can be frightening and the illness can be serious, experts say there is little cause for concern for most people. Here’s what you need to know:
What is the plague?
The plague is a disease caused by Yersinia pestisa bacteria found in rodents and their fleas.
In the Middle Ages, plague caused tens of millions of deaths across Europe in a series of epidemics known as the. Although the bacterial infection is still present today, it is much rarer in modern times and can be treated.
There are three types of plague: septicemic plague, pneumonic plague, and bubonic plague, which is the most common form and accounts for about 80% of cases in this country. (More on each type below.)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 496 cases of plague were documented in the United States between 1970 and 2020, almost all of which occurred in the West or Southwest. More than half of the cases were reported in New Mexico, followed by smaller numbers in Colorado, Arizona, California and Oregon.
How is the plague transmitted to humans?
People usually contract the plague after being bitten by an infected flea or after handling an infected animal, according to the CDC.
A lotcan be affected by the plague, in particular:
- Mice and rats
- prairie dogs
“Wild carnivores can become infected by eating other infected animals,” notes the CDC.
Cats and dogs can also cause human infections. Cats are particularly susceptible to illness and have been linked to several cases of human plague in the United States via respiratory droplets in recent decades.
Health officials say plague symptoms typically begin to appear two to eight days after a person is exposed to an infected animal or flea.
In some cases, pneumonic plague can be spread when an infected person coughs, causing infectious droplets to spread. It is the only type of plague that can be transmitted between people.
What are the symptoms of the plague?
Symptoms depend on the type of plague the person is infected with.
Bubonic plague : A key symptom is the appearance of painful, swollen lymph nodes in the groin or armpits, called buboes. Other common symptoms include fever, weakness, cough and chills. The majority of cases observed in the United States are of this type.
Septicemic plague: Septicemic plague occurs when the bacteria enters the bloodstream. Patients may develop fever, chills, extreme weakness, abdominal pain, shock, and possibly internal bleeding. The skin and other tissues, especially those of the fingers, toes and nose, may turn black and die. The CDC explains that an infection can begin with septicemic plague or develop if a case of bubonic plague is left untreated.
Pneumonic plague: Untreated bubonic or septicemic plague can develop into pneumonic plague, which spreads to the lungs. These patients may develop fever, headache, weakness, pneumonia, shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, and sometimes bloody or watery mucous membranes. Pneumonia can cause respiratory failure and shock. This type of plague is considered the most serious form of the disease, with a high mortality rate.
Is there a treatment for the plague?
Plague can be successfully treated with antibiotics, says the CDC, but the sooner the better to improve the chances of a full recovery.
“To avoid a high risk of death in patients with pneumonic plague, antibiotics should be administered as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours of the first symptoms appearing,” the CDC says.
The bubonic type has a case fatality rate of 30 to 60 percent, according to the World Health Organization.
Pneumonic plague, when left untreated, is always fatal and death can occur within 18 to 24 hours.
“The key for clinicians is to suspect plague in the first place, obtain the right samples to make a diagnosis, and begin treatment before the diagnosis is even made – as soon as you suspect it, you must begin treatment while the evaluation is in progress.” Dr. Erica S. Shenoy, chief of infection control at Mass General Brigham Health System,.
How to prevent the plague
How to prevent your pets from exposing you to the plague? To protect yourself, protect them.
“It is important to keep fleas away from your pets, as they can transmit not only plague, but also” says Dr. Céline Gounder, CBS News medical contributor and public health editor at KFF Health News.
You can do this by applying flea control products, the CDC recommends.
“Allowing your pets to roam freely, especially in parts of the western United States where plague is endemic, also increases their risk of exposure, as well as yours,” says Gounder, adding that this will beyond just flea prevention. “Cats can also contract plague by eating infected rodents and can also transmit plague to humans through the air.”
The CDC recommends not allowing dogs or cats that roam outside in affected areas to sleep in your bed.
Here are other steps you can take to protect yourself and your family:
- Reduce rodent habitats around your home, workplace and other areas.
- Use insect repellent if you risk exposure to rodent fleas during activities like hiking or working outdoors.
- Wear gloves when handling potentially infected animals.
-Sophie Lewis contributed to this report.