Stolen The Plague: Still around after all these years |

Stolen The Plague: Still around after all these years

by Dr. Joanne Stolen

Fleas, rodents, bacteria make a deadly trio. On July 15, 2009, a flea from a Westminster, Colo. dog park tested positive for Bubonic plague. Jefferson County Public Health reported the flea was taken from a prairie dog die-off at the Westminster Hills Open Space/Dog Park. Several years ago, there was an incident where cute little prairie dogs – captured to be sold for pets – were found to be infected with the plague. Yes, the same plague that wiped out one-third of Europe’s population in the Middle Ages is endemic in many of the rodent populations, especially in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, California and here in Colorado.

Endemic means when that infection is maintained in the population without the need for external input. Plague is present on most continents. Currently, the greatest number of human plague infections occurs in countries such as Madagascar, Tanzania and the Congo. Surprisingly, the largest concentration of infected animals is in the United States. Most plague infections occur this time of the year, from May to October, when infected rodents and fleas are most active and people are more often outdoors. Rats, squirrels, rabbits and prairie dogs are common sources of infection and domestic cats and dogs may become infected by such animals and then transmit the plague to humans. The disease usually spreads through flea bites, but you can also become infected after being exposed to an animal that may have coughed infectious droplets into the air, or through a break in the skin after handling an animal with the plague. Groups most at increased risk are veterinarians, cat and dog owners, hunters, campers and hikers in areas with recent plague outbreaks among animals. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says an average of 10 to 15 persons contract the plague each year in the United States – a relatively small number.

The plague is caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis. Bubonic plague is an infection of the lymph nodes and is usually gotten by flea bite. The symptoms start like the flu with fever and muscle aches and typically painful swelling of lymph nodes – especially in the groin. The swellings are called “bulbos,” hence the name. Pneumonic plague, which infects the lungs, is the most deadly form and can be transmitted from person to person by coughing. The symptoms are severe coughing, bloody sputum and difficulty breathing. Septicemic plague, when the bacteria gets into the blood stream, can cause organ failure, bleeding and abdominal pain. The plague is treatable with antibiotics when diagnosed early, although the fear is that some plague strains are becoming resistant to the commonly used antibiotics (streptomycin, gentamicin, doxycycline, or ciprofloxacin). The plague is also one of the class A bioterrorism agents.: Terrorists have specifically designed antibiotic resistant strains.

On June 5, an 8-year-old boy died in New Mexico after contracting bubonic plague. His 10-year-old sister also contracted the illness. The state’s health department said these are the first human plague cases in the USA so far this year.

The plague has influenced human history. In the 1330s, so many people died it altered supply and demand; basic economics! It lowered the power of the wealthy lords because so many of their serfs died. Historians credit the shift in population demographics with a rise in the middle class and the start of the Renaissance, which means rebirth, and was a rich cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century. Boccaccio’s Decameron were written during the time of the plague when the nobility escaped the plague in the cities and moved into their country castles, entertaining themselves with various tales. Many works of art were painted depicting the horrors of the plague.

The plague was found to have originated in ancient Egypt. Evacuations along the Nile Delta had turned up Nile rats dating to the 16th and 17th century B.C. The plague’s main carrier flea is thought to be native to the Nile Valley and is known to be a Nile rat parasite. Rats and their fleas and bacteria can follow the trade routes and travel on board ships and disembark in ports along the way, and that is how the plague spread from the Middle East, to Asia and Europe and around the world.

How to avoid the plague? Surveillance of the disease in the wild rodent population and control of rat populations are two important measures. Avoid sick or dead animals. Provide flea collars for pets and don’t let them roam in areas where plague has been reported. Seek medical attention immediately if you develop plague symptoms after exposure to fleas or rodents, especially if you live in, or have visited an area where plague occurs. There is a vaccine, but it is not recommended for the general population because the disease remains relatively rare, only for laboratory and field personnel who regularly work with the bacteria and rodents.

Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from Rutgers University where she taught microbiology. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution. She lives in Breckenridge.

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