New Mexico Man Dies Of Septicemic Plague

a scientist looks through a microscope
Lennart Preiss / Getty Images

A New Mexico man has died of septicemic plague, a cousin of the bubonic plague, the infectious disease that is estimated to have killed a third of the population of Europe in the Middle Ages.

As CNN reported, authorities aren’t identifying the man, saying only that he was in his 20s and that he was from Rio Arriba County. He had been in the hospital at the time of his death, according to KOB-TV. Authorities will investigate the man’s home in order to calculate how much risk is posed to his surviving family members.

This marks the second case of plague in New Mexico this year, and the first fatal one in the state since 2015. The other 2020 case involves a Santa Fe County man in his 60s who contracted the bubonic plague and is recovering.

Though the word plague is colloquially used to refer to an infestation (a “plague of locusts,” for example), or an epidemic of any disease, medically speaking, there are three forms of the infectious disease known as a plague — bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic, all of which are caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium. It was the bubonic variety, in which oozing sores known as “buboes” form on the victim’s body, which devastated the European population in the 14th century, killings tens of millions.

Though it’s been centuries since a major outbreak, the bacterium that causes it is still around, and it still pops up in humans from time to time. As was the case in the European outbreaks of the disease, humans today contract it when fleas that bite infected rodents then bite humans, passing on the pathogen.

the yersinia pestis bacterium
  CDC/ Courtesy of Larry Stauffer, Oregon State Public Health Laboratory / Wikimedia Commons (GPL)

Indeed, between one and 17 human cases of the plague in the U.S. occur each year, with an average of seven.

Fortunately, the illness is easily treated with modern antibiotics. Further, it can be mitigated with a few simple precautions aimed at limiting potential exposure to fleas, says Department of Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel.

“Plague activity in New Mexico is usually highest during the summer months, so it is especially important now to take precautions to avoid rodents and their fleas which can expose you to plague,” she said.

Those precautions include cleaning up areas around the house that might attract rodents, such as trash or woodpiles; making sure pets are up to date on flea and tick medication, and keeping pets from roaming around.

As previously reported by The Inquisitr, symptoms of plague-derived illnesses include sudden onset of high fever, chills, headache, nausea and extreme pain and swelling of lymph nodes.