What is bubonic plague? New case of human infected with black death disease in the US

What is bubonic plague? New case of human infected with black death disease in the US

Another rare case of the plague has been confirmed in a human, prompting American health officials to urge owners to protect their pets.

An individual contracted the infectious disease, it was confirmed on Tuesday, in Pueblo County, Colorado.

Alicia Solis, a public health official in Pueblo said: “Plague can be treated successfully with antibiotics, but an infected person must be treated promptly to avoid complications or death. We advise all individuals to protect themselves and their pets from plague.”

The confirmation follows a previous warning that a cat might have passed on the bubonic plague to a human in Oregon, US.

“All close contacts of the resident and their pet have been contacted and provided medication to prevent illness,” said Dr Richard Fawcett, the county health officer, after the initial case.

Bubonic plague is infamous for causing the Black Death, which led to millions of people across Europe dying in the Middle Ages.

While it's uncommon to contract bubonic plague in most parts of the world now, it can still lead to severe illnesses if humans are infected.

So here’s all you need to know about bubonic plague.

A reenactment of the black death (PA)
A reenactment of the black death (PA)

What is bubonic plague?

Caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis, plague is an infectious disease usually found on small animals and transmitted through fleas or broken skin.

It’s best known as being the cause of the Black Death, when rats carrying infected fleas came in contact with people in dense European cities.

Infected fleas can either pass on the plague, or household pets can be infected if they hunt rodents infected with the plague or are similarly bitten.

Pets can then transfer the infection to humans. Alternatively, they might carry fleas that in turn bite humans.

There were no effective cures at the time and it’s thought that around half the population of Europe perished due to the bubonic plague in the 14th century. What’s more, historians are actually uncertain how the spread of the Black Death eventually died down.

While the bubonic plague is often reserved for the history books, it actually still exists today. However, it’s incredibly rare.

If humans contract bubonic plague, the illness attacks the lymph nodes and may eventually enter into the bloodstream and lungs - which is considered more serious. Other symptoms include nausea, fever, weakness and muscle aches.

Bubonic plague can lead to severe illness in most people, with a 60% fatality rate if left untreated. Pneumonic plague is much more serious, as well as contagious, and has a 100% fatality rate if untreated.

There were 5 reported cases of bubonic plague between July and September 2023. Luckily, antibiotics exist that can help treat bubonic plague when it’s caught early.

Can you still catch bubonic plague?

Humans can still catch bubonic plague around the world today, but it’s not very common.

According to the World Health Organization, three countries consider the bubonic plague endemic: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, and Peru.

The most likely way that humans can contract bubonic plague is by being bitten by an infected flea that’s come from an animal.

Cats look innocent enough but can carry the plague from infected mice or ticks (PA Archive)
Cats look innocent enough but can carry the plague from infected mice or ticks (PA Archive)

Can your dog or cat give you the plague?

Plague is most commonly spread through infected flea bites but it can also transmit from human contact with contaminated body fluids or tissue from an animal or human.

Handling a pet, or being around the sneeze or cough of an infected being can be enough to pass the disease on.

It is possible a dog or a cat could have caught the virus from an infected rodent, such as a mouse or a rat, as well as from a tick.

With the Oregon cat, it is thought the feline might have eaten an infected mouse.

To stay safe, it is a good idea to regularly check pets for fleas and keep their food in containers that would be inaccessible to rodents.

It is also inadvisable to let a pet cat or dog sleep in your bed.

Is there a cure for bubonic plague?

A lot of cases of bubonic plague can now be cured with a simple round of antibiotics.

This is a far cry from the situation which evolved in the 14th century when doctors tried a range of unique remedies to cure the Black Death.

However, modern-day bubonic plague can also become serious if not treated on time, and people need to see a doctor as soon as possible.

There is not currently a vaccine in the US although an inoculation to cope with the most recent strain of the disease is reportedly in production.