An Oregonian who was diagnosed with the bubonic plague — the disease that killed millions of Europeans in the Middle Ages — probably got it from an infected pet cat, health officials said.

The patient and all close contacts have been provided medication, officials in Deschutes County, Ore., stated in a health notice, and people in the community are not believed to be at risk. The cat was treated but did not survive.

While the plague is rare, about seven cases in humans are reported each year in the United States, mostly in the Northwest and rural Southwest, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“The reason why it hasn’t been eliminated is because there’s an animal reservoir,” Dr. Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told CNN.

“The bacteria can infect animals, and because we can’t treat all animals in the wild, it persists in nature and thus occasionally causes a limited number of human cases,” he explained.

Bubonic plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

People usually get it after being bitten by a flea that is carrying the bacteria or an infected animal such as a squirrel, chipmunk, mouse or other rodent. Deschutes County health officials said pets are highly susceptible to plague. They urged owners not to let their animals hunt rodents and to protect them with flea-control products.

Symptoms of bubonic plague typically emerge in two to eight days, according to the CDC. They include fever, headache, chills, weakness and swollen, painful lymph nodes.

Left undiagnosed, it can spread to the bloodstream and lungs, where it becomes harder to treat, the Deschutes County Health Services said.

Typically, people infected with plague are treated with common antibiotics like gentamicin and fluoroquinolones

In the Middle Ages, plague caused a pandemic known as the “Black Death.” Millions in Europe died.

Dr. Harish Moorjani, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health in Westchester County, N.Y., who is not involved in the Oregon case, told CNN that people should put the current case into perspective. 

“Now, it’s a very treatable disease. It shouldn’t create the fear that people had in the Middle Ages of the Black Death,” he said.

“As long as the person and their immediate contacts are treated — which did occur in this case — the chance that it will spread any further is very, very low,” Moorjani said. “So, I think that people should not be worried, but if people want to reduce their risk then they should avoid contact with rodents and fleas and sick animals.”

Maintaining good hygiene in and around the home, keeping pets on a leash outdoors and using good flea control are all advised.

This was Oregon’s first case since 2015. 

A welder in central Oregon contracted the disease in 2012, according to the Associated Press, when he pulled a rodent out of his choking cat’s mouth. He survived, but he lost his fingertips and toes to the disease.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about the plague.

SOURCES: CNN, Associated Press; Oregon Live; Deschutes County (Ore.) Health Services, health notice, Feb. 7, 2024 

Source: HealthDay

Comments are closed.