Now then: Here in Colorado, as sometimes happens in the summer, the plague is back. No, not the Kung Flu; we’re talking something that was, back in its heyday, far more deadly: Bubonic plague. Excerpt:
The Colorado health department that had announced a positive detection of plague in a dead squirrel recently updated its press release to reassure members of the public that plague “usually occurs somewhere in Colorado every year” and that it was found in a squirrel after a local health department investigated what was behind the deaths of more than a dozen of the animals.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that a handful of human plague cases are detected in the US annually, almost always in the rural west. There are rarely any deaths. While there were four in 2015, for instance, there were none recorded in the three subsequent years. Nowadays, the number of cases detected worldwide each year total no more than a few hundred, says Head.
Head points out that bubonic plague, one of three main types of plague, does not transmit easily between humans. Instead, it’s spread by infected fleas that live on rodents including squirrels, prairie dogs, and marmots.
To catch bubonic plague, a person usually has to be bitten by a flea after coming into contact with one of these rodents or another animal, such as a pet, that itself has had such contact. It’s also possible to catch the disease by exposure to body fluids from an infected animal.
The actual infection is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Widely available antibiotics such as streptomycin or gentamicin are used to treat bubonic plague.
If untreated, the disease can cause fever, chills, vomiting, and greatly swollen lymph nodes—the “buboes” from which the bubonic plague gets its name. Between 30 percent and 60 percent of infected individuals die, according to the World Health Organization.
The WHO actually gets this one right. While it killed millions back in the Bad Old Days, bubonic plague these days isn’t particularly dangerous as long as one seeks treatment. And, to boot, it isn’t particularly easy to catch, unless you have a habit of handling wild prairie dogs or squirrels and letting their fleas jump on you.
And yet, over the past twenty years, we’re still averaging about seven
deaths cases (thanks to reader WolfNippleChips for the correction) a year from plague, almost completely in the West. I suppose that in those cases there are some complicating conditions involved, although information on that isn’t clear. I suppose there are always a few cranks that won’t seek treatment for one reason or another, and in those cases, well, that’s why we have the Darwin Awards.
Still. Seven cases a year in a nation of three hundred and thirty million. That should place the plague awfully low on everyone’s Give-A-Shit-O-Meter.