By Laura F. Friedman in the Business Insider
Madagascar is currently experiencing an outbreak of the plague, the disease once known as the Black Death, the World Health Organization announced recently.
The first case was reported in August. As of November 19, there have been 119 cases and 40 deaths.
The plague is spread among rodent populations by fleas, who can also infect humans. Symptoms include fever, chills, weakness, and swollen, painful lymph nodes. Usually, a bite from an infected flea leads to the bubonic plague, which can be treated with antibiotics. But if the bacteria enters the lungs, it can turns into pneumonic plague, a far deadlier version that can cause respiratory failure and spread person-to-person by coughing. Two percent of cases in the Madagascar outbreak have been pneumonic.
“The mortality rate depends on how soon treatment is started,” the WHO notes, “but is always very high.”
While the last plague epidemic in the United States was back in 1924, when 37 people died in Los Angeles, the much-feared disease still surfaces in Americans from time to time, though it’s very infrequent — and fully treatable with antibiotics if it’s caught in time.
“Plague… spread from urban rats to rural rodent species, and became entrenched in many areas of the western United States,” the CDC explains. “Since that time, plague has occurred as scattered cases in rural areas.”
Between 1900 and 2010, there were 999 “confirmed or probable” cases in the U.S. More than 80% of those were bubonic, where the bacteria infects the lymph nodes. (The Colorado man had the deadlier version: pneumonic plague.)
From the CDC:
Plague in the United States
Plague was first introduced into the United States in 1900, by rat–infested steamships that had sailed from affected areas, mostly from Asia. Epidemics occurred in these port cities. The last urban plague epidemic in the United States occurred in Los Angeles from 1924 through 1925. Plague then spread from urban rats to rural rodent species, and became entrenched in many areas of the western United States. Since that time, plague has occurred as scattered cases in rural areas. Most human cases in the United States occur in two regions:
– Northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southern Colorado
– California, southern Oregon, and far western Nevada
We should be concerned and thankful that we have and fund the agencies that keep the viruses and bacteria from exploding into an epidemic.