Health officials have confirmed that three people in New Mexico have been diagnosed with the plague. The three people diagnosed were a 63-year-old man and, more recently, a 52-year-old and a 62-year-old woman. The health officials reported the two most recent cases this week.
All three had been hospitalized but are now recovering at home. Officials from the health department are now investigating the homes of those infected to ensure there isn’t a risk to families or neighbors.
The plague comes in three forms: bubonic plague, septicemic plague, and pneumonic plague. In the U.S., bubonic accounts for more than 80 percent of plague cases. Two of this year’s New Mexico cases were bubonic, and one was pneumonic. The patient with the pneumonic case is currently recovering from organ damage due to the illness.
A flea-dwelling bacterium, Yersinia pestis, causes the disease. The infected fleas have taken up residence on rodents, like chipmunks, squirrels and prairie dogs, across the southwest. Prairie dogs are particularly vulnerable to plague and a whole colony can get the illness. The plague can persist in wild rodent populations for a long time without affecting humans.
Once a rodent is infected, the illness can spread to cats, dogs and people that come within flea-jump range. Cats and dogs can catch fleas while exploring outdoors or by bringing infected rodents to the home. Cats are more susceptible to the disease than dogs and can pass the infection to humans directly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the disease first came to the United States via rat-infested ships. The same bacterium ravaged medieval Europe and killed an estimated 50 million people across three continents in the 1300s. The plague also wiped out millions in China and Hong Kong in the late 1800s. The disease periodically pops up in countries across the globe. The World Health Organization recorded 320 cases around the world in 2015, including 77 deaths.
In humans, the most common symptoms are a “sudden onset” of fever, headache, chills and weakness. Those sickened with the disease can usually be treated with antibiotics to fight the bacterial infection. Thanks to advances in antibiotics, plague mortality in the U.S. was down to 11 percent between 1990-2010.
The U.S. tends to see between one and 17 human cases a year. Last year, New Mexico state had four cases. The prior year, there were also four cases, including one death. Paul Rhien, New Mexico Department of Health spokesman, said, “The risk for people traveling to New Mexico is minimal and we do not want people to be deterred from vacationing or traveling to the Southwest.”