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Healthy Living

Why You Don't Need To Panic Over The Plague Cases In New Mexico

Plague in the U.S. is rare, but not unheard of.

Two New Mexico women have been diagnosed with plague, the state’s health department announced Monday, making a total of three people who have contracted the illness in the state this year.

While “plague” might make you think of mind horrific scenes of miserable Medieval folks dying en masse — and yes, the Black Death was caused by plague — the average United States resident doesn’t need to panic over the news. That said, plague ― caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis ― is an extremely serious illness. If you live in an area that’s known to have occasional outbreaks, you’ll want to take precautions.

The three people diagnosed this year in New Mexico’s Santa Fe County were a 63-year-old man and, more recently, a 52-year-old and a 62-year-old woman.

“All three patients have recovered and are no longer hospitalized,” Paul Rhien, New Mexico Department of Health spokesman, told HuffPost in an email.

Rhien stated that the department takes any threats to health and safety “very seriously,” but added that the risk of plague is small for people traveling to the state.

“The risk for people traveling to New Mexico is minimal and we do not want people to be deterred from vacationing or traveling to the Southwest,” he said.

Plague in humans is extremely rare in the U.S. — there’s an average of seven cases a year — and it’s most often found in rural areas of the west and southwest. (In some other places around the world, the numbers are much higher. In Madagascar, for instance, there are about 600 reported cases a year.)

Fleas transmit plague after biting infected rodents, like mice.
Fleas transmit plague after biting infected rodents, like mice.

And thanks to advances in antibiotics, plague mortality in the U.S. was down to 11% between 1990-2010, though it can still be extremely deadly if not treated quickly. In 2015, there was an unusually high spike with sixteen reported cases and four deaths, though health officials stressed that the overall risk of death from plague was still very low.

There are three varieties of plague — bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. Rhien told HuffPost that of the people diagnosed in New Mexico this year, one had pneumonic plague and two had bubonic plague.

The CDC notes that in the U.S., bubonic accounts for more than 80 percent of plague cases. Bubonic plague is also the kind that most people think of when they think “plague,” and involves swollen, painful lymph nodes (called “buboes”.)

So how are people getting the plague in the first place? Fleas, who contract the disease from biting infected rodents, can transmit that disease to humans as well as to other animals. People can also get plague in other ways — like from handling infected tissues or fluids. And pneumonic plague can be transmitted through the air via respiratory droplets, according to the CDC.

But fleas are the main culprit, which is why the NMDOH stresses the importance of preventing fleas on pets and minimizing places near your home where rodents like mice or rats could live. In a statement from the department, officials recommend that residents:

  • Talk to your veterinarian about using an appropriate flea control product on your pets as not all products are safe for cats, dogs, or your children.

  • Clean up areas near the house where rodents could live, such as woodpiles, brush piles, junk and abandoned vehicles.

  • Sick pets should be examined promptly by a veterinarian.

  • See your doctor about any unexplained illness involving a sudden and high fever.

  • Put hay, wood, and compost piles as far as possible from your home.

  • Don’t leave your pet’s food and water where mice can get to it.

“Pets that are allowed to roam and hunt can bring infected fleas from dead rodents back into the home, putting you and your children at risk,” DOH public health veterinarian said in the statement. “Keeping your pets at home or on a leash and using an appropriate flea control product is important to protect you and your family.”

If you think you or your pet might have the plague, get medical advice immediately. In humans, the most common symptoms are a “sudden onset” of fever, headache, chills and weakness, and can include painful swollen lymph nodes. In cats and dogs, the symptoms are fever, lethargy and loss of appetite. Animals may also get a swollen lymph node under their jaws.

This story has been updated with comments from Paul Rhien.

Neglected Tropical Diseases