Yes, The Plague Is Here. No, You Shouldn’t Be Worried.

August 7, 2015
The deadly disease is in the U.S., but it’s most likely not coming for you.

Think the plague is something you only read about in history books? Well, you might want to look at the news.

Unfortunately, someone in Colorado was confirmed dead due to the plague on August 6 (this is the second death in Colorado from the plague this year). And CNN reports that a child who visited Yosemite National Park in California in July has come down with the plague—but that he or she is recovering and no one else in the group was infected.

Yes, this is the same plague that wiped out much of Europe during the Middle Ages. Apparently, it never really went away. In the last century, the plague, caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, has cropped up just more than 1,000 times in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That being said, in recent decades, only about seven Americans have come down with it per year, mostly in the southwest. Abroad, the World Health Organization receives between 1,000 and 2,000 reports of the plague per year.

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So should you be freaked? It probably sounds like a lot of people have it—definitely more than the zero cases per year you probably assumed were sweeping the country—but those numbers are actually quite low statistically, says Alan Taege, M.D., an infectious disease expert at the Cleveland Clinic. “The plague is not ‘coming back,’” he says. “However, because it’s so rare, it’s not quickly recognized.”

CDC.gov

The plague, which 80 percent of the time occurs in the U.S. in the bubonic form, causes fever, headache, chills, weakness, and swollen, painful lymph nodes called buboes (bubonic plague's namesake). All bumps aside, it can be easily confused for a hellacious case of the flu. Symptoms usually start within two to six days after exposure and escalate quickly. But it generally only takes seven to 14 days of oral antibiotics to kick the illness.

When left untreated though, it can develop into either septicemic plague, in which the bacteria infects the blood, causing skin, organs, and other tissues to turn black and die, or pneumonic plague, in which pneumonia becomes life-threatening, says Taege.

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So how do you get it? In this most recent plague case in Colorado, the Pueblo City-County Health Department has not yet determined how the person (whom it has only identified as an adult) became infected with the virus. But reps say they believe the victim may have been bitten by a plague-carrying flea that was on a dead rodent or other animal, according to the department’s press release.

Shutterstock.com

After all, that’s how most cases of the plague start, says Taege. The disease moves from rodent to rodent (and occasionally to another animal) through bites from fleas that harbor the bacteria. But since the plague eventually kills off the animals, the fleas lose their hosts, get hungry, and that’s when they become at greater risk for biting humans.

RELATED: 8 Genius Ways to Boost Your Immunity

The bottom line: As long as you stay away from dead, wild animals, especially rodents and rats, you really don’t have anything to worry about, says Taege. If you see a dead animal in the woods or on the side of the road, don’t pick it up. (As if you needed a reason apart from your gag reflex.)

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