The fourth death from the bubonic plague this year is a man in Utah. The man, whose name is not being reported, was the first death from the plague in Utah since 2009. The cause of the man’s exposure to the plague is not known at this point, but is believed to be from a flea or a dead animal such as a prairie dog.
While this is the fourth death from the plague this year, twelve cases have been reported. Two patients, from California and Georgia, were infected while visiting Yosemite National Park, where there were several reported infections in wild rodents. (The park was closed for four days so that flea treatments and killers could be administered in the area). Four of the plague victims were from Colorado, including one who died from the very rare variation called septicemic plague. The other cases were in New Mexico, Arizona, and Oregon. An average of two people have died every year from the plague in the past 15 years, but officials have stressed that the limited numbers will have variations and the fourth plague death is not a cause for concern in the general population.
The bubonic plague, caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, is most well known for the devastation it wreaked in the fourteenth century known as the Black Death. But it continues to exist to this day in desert areas. It’s estimated that the plague was brought to the United States by infected animals from Asia in 1900. An epidemic of plague deaths occurred in Los Angeles in 1924 to 1925, but there have been no widespread outbreaks since then. It has a death rate from 30 percent (the bubonic form) to over 90 percent in the pneumonic (where the plague spreads to the lungs) and septicemic (when the plague spreads to the bloodstream) if untreated, but the plague can be treated successfully with antibiotics. Death rates with antibiotic treatment are between eight and 10 percent of those infected. Although the plague can be passed by infected animals and fleas, it cannot be spread from one human to another. Rats are the most commonly infected animals, and rats and fleas make up most of the infected animals in the wild. There have been fears that the plague may be used as a biological weapon, but its primary means of transmission makes this unlikely. Several plague vaccines are currently in development, but the current one is no longer available in the United States.
To prevent infection and death from the plague, the CDC recommends that anyone in a wilderness/desert area in the Southwest use insect repellent with DEET and to make sure pets are treated for fleas.
[Photo by California Department of Public Health via Getty Images]