Bubonic plague – the Black Death – has infected a youngster in Elmore County, Idaho for the first time in 26 years. The child is recovering from exposure to the Yersinia pestis bacteria and the disease it made famous: the plague.
Idaho’s Central District Health Department (CDHD) issued a statement on June 12, 2018, which revealed that the Elmore County minor was a confirmed victim of bubonic plague and “recovering after receiving antibiotic treatment.”
The plague is spread among humans by bites from infected fleas or by direct contact with infected animals or their fleas. The Idaho child may have been infected in Idaho or during a recent trip to Oregon. Both states have histories of plague. Oregon confirmed eight human cases since 1990, compared to two in Idaho.
Ground squirrels in Idaho are known carriers of the fleas whose bites are capable of spreading the Black Death. The bacteria can incubate inside its new host for several days. This makes pinpointing the cause of the infection difficult.
Did you know there have been three major pandemics caused by the bubonic plague?
The Justinian Plague
Named for the ruler of the time, 6th-century Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the first-ever pandemic recorded in human history started in 541 AD. Over the course of the next 200 years, it was responsible for over 25 million deaths.
The Great Plague or Black Death
An astonishing 60 percent of Europe’s population was wiped out by the second pandemic, which traced back to China in 1334 and traveled along the trade routes westward. The scene from the “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” movie where carters shout “Bring out your dead!” and ring bells is historically accurate. Sometimes, there weren’t enough survivors to bury the dead. Sometimes, everyone in town died from the Black Death.
The Modern Plague
Once again, China was the source in the 1860s of the third major plague pandemic. Rats who stowed away on steamships transported the virulent affliction over the next 20 years. Ultimately, some 10 million victims died.
More recently, smaller outbreaks known as epidemics have arisen in India (first half of the 20th century) and Vietnam (the 1960s and 1970s wartime). It is now common in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar where more than 95 percent of all plague cases are reported.
In 1924, thirty people died in Los Angeles, California, during the most recent urban plague epidemic in the U.S.
The good news is that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that the incidence of Black Death in the U.S. has been low since it first appeared in 1900:
“In recent decades, an average of 7 human plague cases are reported each year,” with a range of between one and seventeen cases identified annually.
To prevent exposure to plague-bearing fleas, steer clear of wild rodents. Wear protective clothing outdoors and apply insect repellant. The CDHD offers these additional tips on how to protect yourself and your furry family from coming down with the Black Death:
- Never touch or handle wild rodents or their dead bodies
- Prevent your pets from hunting rodents
- Use veterinary approved flea prevention products on your cats and dogs
- Don’t feed wild rodents near your home or on campgrounds or any other populated areas
- Prevent rodents from being attracted to your home by removing accessible food source locations and nest locations, such as pet food and wood piles
- If you ever find or come across a group of dead squirrels, report it to the state’s Department of Fish and Game
Speaking of pets, symptoms of plague in cats and dogs include fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, and possible swelling in the lymph nodes under the jaw.
The human lymphatic system spreads bubonic plague throughout the body. As the bacteria multiply, it cleverly evades the immune system. Accumulating in the lymph node, the bacterium secretes toxic chemicals that produce fever, weakness, and headache. Buboes – swollen, black-and-blue lymph nodes – are the next symptoms to develop.
In most cases, patients also experience painful swelling of the lymph node in the groin, armpit, or neck.
People who believe they have symptoms of bubonic plague should seek medical attention immediately. A doctor can prescribe a course of antibiotics to halt the deadly disease. Speedy treatment cures the majority of plague cases. Left unchecked, however, the disease may progress to its much more deadly septicemic form.
The CDC teams up with state health departments to test rodent populations routinely to monitor the spread of plague bacteria in the wild. When a large number of infected rodents is discovered, these organizations spray insecticide in the area to kill disease-carrying fleas. Keep an eye out for signs posted to warn residents and visitors away from the toxic zones.
Health officials claim that American cities face no danger from a resurgence of the Black Death since it is mostly confined to rural areas.