- SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) -- Veterinarian Barbara Swanson didn't think much about
it when the sweet, sick cat she was treating for an infection bit her on
- Four days later, a high fever and intense
pain in her arm sent her to the hospital. The diagnosis: bubonic plague.
- Esther Morrison believed her 70-year-old
husband was exhausted when he stopped splitting wood, complained of stomach
pain and told her not to count on him for supper.
- Two days later, he was dead. The diagnosis:
- Despite its medieval aura -- the Black
Death (the pneumonic form of the plague) wiped out one-quarter of Europe's
population in the 14th century.
- Plague has a decidedly modern face. There
are still sporadic outbreaks around the world. In the United States, an
average of 10 to 15 cases are reported in humans each year, mostly in the
- That makes it rare -- but worrisome nonetheless.
- ``We treat it very seriously because
of the risk of human-to-human spread and the high fatality rate,'' said
Kenneth Gage, chief of the plague section of the Division of Vector-Borne
Infectious Diseases with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Plague is a bacterial disease of rodents
that generally is transmitted through flea bites. The culprits are most
likely to be rock squirrels, ground squirrels, prairie dogs or pack rats
living roughly in the western half of the United States.
- Most of the human cases occur in the
Southwest -- New Mexico accounts for more than half -- and along the Sierra
Nevada in California. There have been human cases reported in at least
13 Western states.
- ``The closer you get to the Rocky Mountains
and on west, the more plague you're going to find,'' said Gage, whose office
is in Fort Collins, CO.
- And it doesn't require unsanitary conditions
or urban squalor. A roaming cat can bring plague back to a suburban living
- Although flea powder and other precautions
can reduce the risk, and prompt treatment with antibiotics can cure it,
plague kills about 16 percent of its human victims, according to the CDC.
- There were 394 human plague cases in
the nation from 1949 through 1997, 63 of them fatal, the CDC said. New
Mexico logged 218 of those, including 30 fatalities, said Paul Ettestad,
public health veterinarian with the state Department of Health.
- ``It's a disease that can be fatal if
not recognized and treated early enough,'' Ettestad said.
- Swanson, the nation's first human plague
case this year, saw a doctor as soon as she felt sick and spent two days
in the hospital. Several months later, she still had lingering fatigue.
- Esther Morrison's husband, Donald, a
retired metallurgical engineer, died in August 1984 after being stricken
at their house on a wooded hillside a few miles from Santa Fe.
- Dead ground squirrels found in the family's
woodpile were later determined to have had plague. But the doctor he saw
twice didn't recognize the disease.
- Septicemic plague ``is so sneaky,'' said
Mrs. Morrison, whose family created a memorial fund after her husband's
death to educate doctors in rural areas about the disease.
- Bubonic plague, which accounts for 80
percent of cases, is marked by swollen lymph glands, called buboes. It's
harder to diagnose septicemic plague, which circulates in the bloodstream,
and pneumonic plague, which infects the lungs and is particularly dangerous
because it can be transmitted through coughing. Generally, those in contact
with a pneumonic plague victim are also treated with antibiotics.
- ``In the United States, we actually haven't
had person-to-person transmission since the 1920s -- not that it couldn't
occur,'' said the CDC's Gage.
- Most people become sick two to seven
days after infection. Other symptoms are fever, chills, headache, muscle
pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
- The incidence of plague appears to be
cyclical, apparently linked to the high-moisture, milder winters typical
of El Nino years that cause rodents to thrive, Ettestad said. This year,
the rodent population in New Mexico is estimated at 10 to 20 times higher
than last year, when no one in the state caught plague.
- Believed to have evolved in central Asia,
plague is new to the United States. It arrived about 1900 in San Francisco
aboard trading ships from China and spread from urban rats into the wild
rodent population of the West. There were outbreaks in ports along the
Gulf of Mexico, but it never got established in the native rodents there,
according to the CDC's Gage.
- Cats are more susceptible to plague than
dogs and get sicker. Listlessness and not eating are clues that a cat is
ill. ``If you become sick and there's a sick cat in the house, go see your
doctor,'' Swanson advised.
- Plague also can be contracted by handling
infected animals. Hunters, for example, are at risk if they don't wear
gloves while skinning animals.
- Esther Morrison gives her cat anti-flea
treatment regularly and sprays her woodpiles. She says if she were to get
sick and suspected plague, she would be aggressive about demanding the
- ``I'm not afraid of plague any more because
I've read so much,'' she said.
- Ways to reduce plague risk:
- Avoid sick or dead animals.
- Teach children to avoid dead animals
and rodent nests or burrows.
- Don't use tents or sleeping bags near
rodent nests or burrows.
- Use insect repellent on skin and clothes.
- Don't allow cats and dogs to roam free.
- Treat cats and dogs with a product that
kills fleas on contact.
- Have sick outdoor pets examined promptly
by a veterinarian.
- Hunters, trappers should wear gloves
when handling dead animals.
- Human plague at a glance -
- A bacterial disease of rodents generally
transmitted through flea bites.
- May be transmitted by direct contact
with infected rodents, wildlife or pets.
- Most people become ill two to seven days
- Symptoms may include fever, chills, swollen
lymph nodes in groin, armpit or neck, headache, muscle pain, vomiting,
- Can be cured by prompt treatment with
- Can be fatal.