Michigan Man Has Bubonic Plague, But Don’t Worry — This Isn’t Black Death Redux

Centuries after the Black Death decimated Europe, the bubonic plague is still a thing. But these days, people are more likely to survive from the illness, like a recently diagnosed — and comfortably recovering — Michigan man.

The disease killed millions of Europeans in the Middle Ages, so it stands to reason the public would be a bit squeamish about news that another person — the 14th American to be infected — has caught it.

Public health officials insist that there is no risk of the bubonic plague being transmitted to other people, CBS News reported.

The man’s case marks the first ever appearance of the disease in the state, but it didn’t originate there. The patient caught bubonic plague during a trip to Colorado, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jennifer Smith told the Detroit Free Press.

“This is not something that occurs (in) Michigan. … This is a person who contracted this while they were away, and the individual is making a recovery and is not a public health (threat).”

He’s reportedly already recovering and was diagnosed weeks ago.

You’re most likely to catch bubonic plague if you hang around in areas where rodents find food and shelter, like campsites and cabins. Medical contributor Dr. Holly Phillips told CBS that rural areas are more likely to see the disease.

“Now, it’s very rare, especially in the U.S. There are only about 7 to 10 cases a year, but it still exists. Think of rodents in very rural states — western states, southwest, ranches, farms — that’s likely what happened here.”

The part of Colorado the Michigan man visited had reported activity recently, Reuters added. In fact, two people there died of the illness in recent months. In August, an elderly Utah resident died of it, as well.

The newest case makes the 14th this year. Usually, the U.S. sees only three. Officials don’t know why the country is seeing an uptick in cases of bubonic plague. However, it’s been circulating since 1900. That’s the year it was introduced to the U.S. via rat-infested steamships that arrived from Asia and other affected areas.

Despite the connection to the Black Death, the version that infected the Michigan victim wasn’t quite the same.


“It’s same organism but, in this case, the infection resides in a lymph node,” said Dr. Terry Frankovich, medical director for the Marquette County Health Department.

Those infected with the bubonic plague usually have swollen and painful lymph nodes in the groin, armpit, or neck. It’s contracted via bites from infected fleas, or if a person has contact with an infected animal’s tissue or fluids.

There are two dangerous varieties, neither of which befell the Michigan patient. The first is quite contagious, and takes the form of pneumonia — this kind passes between humans and develops very rapidly into life-threatening respiratory failure. Then there’s the septicemic form. In these cases, the organism multiplies in the blood, causing death.

One of the fatalities in Colorado, a teen, suffered from this form.

[Photo Courtesy Taylor Weidman / Getty Images]