Bubonic plague in an Oregon teen has prompted health officials to issue a warning. “Many people think of the plague as a disease of the past, but it’s still very much present in our environment, particularly among wildlife,” says Emilio DeBess, DVM, state public health veterinarian in the Public Health Division’s Acute and Communicable Disease Prevention Section.
According to an October 29 Oregon Health Authority News and Information report, a 15-year-old Oregon girl is believed to have been infected with the bubonic plague by a flea bite while on a hunting trip near Heppner in Morrow County. The girl’s trip began on October 16, she fell ill on October 21, and was hospitalized in Bend on October 24. After spending several days in the intensive care unit, the girl recovered and was able to be moved from the ICU on Friday, October 30.
So far, no other Oregon residents have been diagnosed with the bubonic plague, which caused the Black Death that killed an estimated 50 million people in Asia, Europe, and Africa in the 14th century. Being a bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the disease can be treated successfully with a variety of antibiotics if diagnosed early. Symptoms usually occur two to six days after exposure and include flu-like fever, headaches, vomiting, and swollen or painful lymph nodes.
“Without prompt treatment, the disease can cause serious illness or death,” reports the CDC. “Presently, human plague infections continue to occur in the western United States, but significantly more cases occur in parts of Africa and Asia.”
A map provided by the CDC shows that in the United States, the bubonic plague has been found mainly in Northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, southern Colorado, California, far western Nevada, and Oregon:
“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.”
Between 1900 and 2012, there were 1006 confirmed cases of the disease. Between 2000 and 2014, there have been eight reported deaths in the United States due to the bubonic plague.
The bubonic plague found in the Oregon girl has prompted Oregon Health officials to remind people that the disease is carried by squirrels, chipmunks, and other wild rodents and their fleas. “When an infected rodent becomes sick and dies, its fleas can carry the infection to other warm-blooded animals or humans through bites.” Since untreated bubonic plague can be fatal for people as well as animals, medical professionals and veterinarians have been advised about the recent case of the Oregon girl.