Oregon health officials have confirmed this week that a teenage girl in Crook County, Oregon, has contracted the bubonic plague. The girl most likely caught the disease from a flea bite during a hunting trip in northern Oregon and is currently recovering in an intensive care unit at a local hospital.
The bubonic plague—yes, the same disease as the “Black Death” that crippled Europe in the Middle Ages—is an infection caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria carried by rodents like rats, squirrels, and chipmunks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Humans get it from being bitten by fleas, which contract it from feeding on infected rodents.
“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,” Emilio DeBess, a veterinarian in Oregon's Public Health Division, explained in a press release. “Fortunately, plague remains a rare disease, but people need to take appropriate precautions with wildlife and their pets to keep it that way.”
To keep yourself and your loved ones safe, the CDC recommends avoiding sick or dead rodents, rabbits and squirrels, treating your pets for fleas, and cleaning up any areas near your house where rodents could live (think brush piles or abandoned vehicles).
Once bitten by a flea carrying the bacteria, symptoms usually develop two to six days after being bitten, and include sudden fever, headache, chills, and painful, swollen lymph nodes (known as buboes). Without immediate antibiotic treatment, the infection can spread to the bloodstream (septicemic plague) or to the lungs (pneumonic plague), both of which can be fatal.
Bubonic plague can also lead to gangrene in fingers and toes. In 2012, another Oregon patient lost fingers and toes after contracting the plague from handling a mouse his pet cat had caught, according to the Associated Press.
All of this sounds scary for sure, but the good news is that in addition to being rare in the United States, most of those who do contract the virus will recover with prompt antibiotic treatment.
While the infection is serious, the overall mortality rate for the plague today is 11%, versus 66% before antibiotics were invented.