HOLBROOK— The plague?

Really?

Like the Black Death?

Now? On top of everything else?

Well, yes. Navajo County last week did announce the discovery of a single case of the bubonic plague, the bacteria that killed half of the population of Europe between 1346 and 1353.

But it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Honest.

Plague ecology in the US

The bacteria that cause plague, Yersinia pestis, maintain their existence in a cycle involving rodents and their fleas. Plague occurs in rural and semi-rural areas of the western United States, primarily in semi-arid upland forests and grasslands where many types of rodent species can be involved. Many types of animals, such as rock squirrels, wood rats, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, chipmunks, mice, voles, and rabbits can be affected by plague. Wild carnivores can become infected by eating other infected animals.

Thank goodness for antibiotics, which have turned a gruesome death sentence into a painful but manageable disease — at least in the United States where people can readily get antibiotic therapy for the bacteria injected by fleas who feed on people after feeding on plague-infected rodents.

The plague continues to perk along in Arizona and New Mexico, living in pack rats, ground squirrels, gophers, rats and other furry critters. Now and then, it spreads to humans with some help from fleas.

Navajo County warned people not to handle rodents — even when they’re dead. The fleas on the body can easily hop to humans and spread the plague.

In this case, doctors discovered the infection in a 55 year-old man living in Navajo County — although they’re not saying just where he lives. Experts from the Pathogen & Microbiome Institute at Northern Arizona University are working with county public health officials to figure out how the man got infected. So far, they’ve found no other infections, according to assistant county manager Bryan Layton.

“They are pursuing all avenues to discover where it originated. Plague in burrowing animals was identified in the county in August of 2017, but we don’t have records of another human infection in recent history. Whether or not an individual is tested for the plague would depend on the individual assessment of their physician,” Layton said.

In the meantime, health officials want you to be careful.

“We encourage residents to use insect repellant when out in the environment, don’t let pets roam free and not to touch sick or dead wildlife,” said Layton.

The Federal Centers for Disease Control reports an average of seven plague cases in the U.S. annually, with almost all of those cases in nine western states — especially Arizona and New Mexico.

The plague came ashore in 1900 in rat-infested steamships mostly setting out from Asia. Plague spread from urban rats to rural rodents and became entrenched in the western U.S. long after it had been eradicated in the rest of the country. It tends to flare up from time to time — reaching 17 cases per year in 2006 and 2015.

The plague remains scattered throughout the world, with the worst problem in central Africa and Madagascar. All told, some 700 cases of the plague are discovered world-wide each year.

The plague bacteria – Yersinia pestis – has a complicated lifecycle involving rodents and their fleas, with the incidental spread to other species like dogs, cats and humans. Coyotes, cats and dogs can easily get infected by eating rats, mice, rabbits and squirrels. Their fleas can then spread the bacterium to humans. The rodents can often withstand infections without illness, which makes them a reservoir in which the bacterium can hide.

Mostly, the disease spreads through flea bites, but bodily fluids and even cough droplets can also spread the bacteria with devastating effects. The plague comes in three forms, bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic. Early symptoms of the three forms include fever, headaches, shortness of breath, chest pains, chills, weakness, abdominal pain and other symptoms that sound an awfully lot like COVID-19 — complicating early diagnosis for doctors. Septicemic and pneumonic plague provoke fewer early symptoms, beyond swollen lymph glands.

Left untreated, the plague spreads more slowly but does far more damage than COVID-19. It spreads through the lymphatic system, the staging ground for the immune system. That might account for its terrible death rate. Fortunately, common antibiotics can generally tame an infection quickly – depending on how early it is caught . Out of 3,200 known cases between 2010 and 2015, the plague accounted for 584 deaths world-wide.

The emergence of this single local case of the plague even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic underscores how far we’ve come since the centuries when human populations were wracked by lethal pandemic almost routinely.

The plague apparently originated in Asia and for centuries caused repeated, lethal, global outbreaks. The Black Death killed an estimated 50 million people, wiping out up to 60% of the European population. At the time, people had no idea the disease was mostly spread by the fleas of rats. Another epidemics devastated the eastern Roman Empire in the Sixth Century CE and a third raged through China, Mongolia and Indian in 1855.

So avoid handling rodents – and don’t let the cat or dog go after the mice and ground squirrels.

Other than that, give thanks COVID-19’s death rate is something like 1% instead of 90%.

Turns out, even with a pandemic – there’s always a bright side.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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