Most people think that the Black Plague or Bubonic Plague are historical epidemics, but the plague is actually still among us. About half of all cases reported in the United States occur in New Mexico, but it is completely preventable.
What Is the Plague?
The term plague may refer to three separate types of plague, all caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis:
- Bubonic plague: the most common disease presentation after infection by plague-causing bacteria. Symptoms include:
- Painful inflammation of lymph node(s) in the groin, armpit or neck
Symptoms usually begin one to six days after infection.
- Septicemic plague: advanced disease progression resulting from high loads of plague-causing bacteria in the bloodstream. Symptoms include:
- High fever
- Abdominal pain
If untreated, septicemic plague can lead to shock and/or organ failure.
- Pneumonic plague: disease resulting from plague infection of the lungs. Symptoms include:
- High fever
- Cough (may produce bloody mucus)
- Difficulty breathing
Pneumonic plague is often fatal if not treated immediately.
Because the plague is caused by a bacterium, treatment includes antibiotics, which are most effective when given early in the disease process.
How Is the Plague Transmitted?
The plague bacterium is spread by fleas. Infected fleas are typically introduced to home environments by rodents. Humans face the greatest risk for the disease when their household pets have picked up infected fleas from household pests.
How Can You Prevent the Plague?
There are a number of ways you can prevent the plague. You can start by minimizing rodents around your home:
- Remove brush, rocks, trash and excess firewood stored near your home or in a shed or garage as these are common rodent nesting places
- Carefully—with gloves—remove any dead animals from around your home and yard (you must dispose of the animal but prevent direct contact)
Because the plague in humans is often preceded by an outbreak among animals, contact your local health department if you notice sick or dead animals (wild or domesticated) near your home.
You can also prevent the plague by preventing fleas from infesting your pets and home by:
- Keeping your pets away from rodent habitats
- Making sure your pets are current on flea treatments
- Using insect repellent shown to prevent flea bites
- Not letting your pets sleep in bed with you
At the first sign of fleas, consult your veterinarian to ensure your pet’s health. You may also consult pest control professionals to completely remove fleas (and eggs) from your home. At the first sign of symptoms, consult your physician and be up-front about the possibility of plague. Like many other communicable diseases, early diagnosis and treatment are essential to good health outcomes.