A Resurgence of a Shadow of the Black Death Emerged in the Pacific Northwest

Black Death

Although rare, the bubonic plague continues to infect more than a handful of individuals each year in the United States. This once-deadly disease, known as the Black Death, is typically transmitted to humans through flea bites. The recent case reported in Oregon, the first in eight years, is linked to an infected pet cat.

Named the Black Death for good reason, this infamous disease devastated roughly a third of Europe’s population during the 14th century. Despite modern antibiotic medicine keeping the plague largely under control, it still manifests in humans annually in the United States. The most recent case hails from Oregon.

According to Richard Fawcett, the health officer for Deschutes County, the rural resident was likely infected with the bubonic plague from a heavily symptomatic pet cat with a significant infection.

The bubonic plague is primarily transmitted to humans through flea bites, with cats often implicated, as seen in the recent case in Oregon. Fleas and rodents are the primary carriers of the plague, and cats frequently interact with both. Additionally, bodily fluids can transmit the plague, as evidenced by the presence of a sick cat with a draining abscess in the Oregon case.

The infection typically begins in the lymph nodes, hence the bubonic name. In the Oregon case, the infection had spread to the bloodstream by the time of hospitalization. Fortunately, the patient responded well to antibiotic treatment, according to Fawcett.

However, the situation is not entirely resolved. The patient may have developed a cough, a potential sign of pneumonic plague, the form of the plague that can spread from person to person. Health officials in Deschutes County administered antibiotics to the patient’s close contacts as a precautionary measure.

Fawcett stated, “If we confirm that a patient has the bacteria in their bloodstream, we may opt to err on the side of caution.”

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