The Plague

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Yes, The Plague

Plague is an infectious disease of animals and humans caused by a nasty little bacterium named Yersinia pestis. People usually get plague from being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an infected animal. More rarely, people can become infected by coming in contact with the respiratory secretions (saliva, phlegm, etc.) of infected persons.

During the 14th Century, plague is believed to have caused upwards of 50 million deaths (half of which were in Europe where a quarter of the population died). Today, modern antibiotics are effective against plague, but if an person is not treated promptly, the disease still can cause illness or death. In fact, more than half of all untreated plague cases result in death.

Outbreaks of plague still occur worldwide in rural communities or in cities where there are great numbers of rodents. These outbreaks are usually associated with rats that live in the home. During the 1970s, the majority of plague cases were reported from Asia. But in the 1980s and 1990s, the majority are reported as occurring in Africa1.

In the United States, the last urban plague epidemic occurred in Los Angeles in 1924-25. Since then, US human plague has occurred mainly in rural areas with about 10 to 15 persons infected each year. Most human cases in the US occur in two regions:

  • Northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southern Colorado;
  • California, southern Oregon, and far western Nevada.

About 14 percent of all plague cases in the US are fatal.

Globally, the World Health Organization reports an average of 2,500 cases of plague every year with about 180 deaths. About 75 percent of cases occur in Africa but Asia, South America and the United States also report cases annually.


The most common form of human plague can be identified by a swollen and tender lymph gland accompanied by pain. This swollen gland is called a 'bubo'2.

A person usually becomes ill with plague within two to six days of being infected. When bubonic plague is left untreated, plague bacteria invade the bloodstream and rapidly multiply spreading throughout the body and causing a severe and often fatal condition.

Infection of the lungs with the plague bacterium causes the pneumonic form of plague or Plague Pneumonia. The infected person may experience high fever, chills, cough, and difficulty breathing.

If plague patients are not given specific antibiotic therapy, the disease can progress rapidly to death.

1However several countries, including the United States, report plague cases every year.2Hence the term 'bubonic plague'

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