Bubonic Plague kills 1 in New Mexico, USA

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —  An 8-year-old New Mexico boy has died and his 10-year-old sister was hospitalized after both contracted bubonic plague, the first recorded human plague cases in the nation so far this year.

A child being infected by bubonic plague

A child being infected by bubonic plague

New Mexico health officials did not immediately say Thursday how the brother and sister contracted the infectious disease, but they are conducting an investigation at the family’s residence to determine if there is any risk to other people.

Plague is generally transmitted to humans through the bites of infected fleas, but also can be transmitted by direct contact with infected animals, including rodents, rabbits and pets.

Symptoms of the bubonic form of the plague in humans include fever, chills, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea and swollen lymph nodes in the groin, armpit or neck areas. Pneumonic plague, which is an infection of the lungs, can include severe cough, difficulty breathing and bloody sputum.

The Health Department, citing privacy concerns, would not release the name of the siblings or give a location for their home, other than saying it was in Santa Fe County. Spokeswoman Deborah Busemeyer said the boy died in the last couple of days but she declined to be more specific.

Fleas collected from the area are being sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing. Health workers also canvassed the neighborhood to tell other residents that plague had been confirmed in the area.

The CDC says an average of 10 to 15 persons contract the plague each year in the United States. Modern antibiotics are an effective treatment.

What is the BUBONIC PLAGUE?

The bacteria

The bacteria

Bubonic plague is the best known manifestation of the bacterial disease plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis (formerly known as Pasteurella pestis). The term “bubonic plague” was often used synonymously for plague, but it does in fact refer specifically to an infection that enters through the skin and travels through the lymphatics, as is often seen in flea-borne infections. Bubonic plague kills about 50% of infected patients in 3–7 days without treatment, and is believed by many to be the Black Death that swept through Europe in the 1340s, killing millions.

Pathology and transmission

Bubonic plage bacteria under the microscope

Bubonic plage bacteria under the microscope

The bubonic plague is an infection of the lymphatic system, usually resulting from the bite of an infected flea. The fleas are often found on rodents, such as rats and mice, and seek out other prey when their rodent hosts die. Once established, bacteria rapidly spread to the lymph nodes and multiply. Yersinia pestis Bacilli can resist phagocytosis and even reproduce inside phagocytes and kill them. As the disease progresses, the lymph nodes can hemorrhage and become swollen and necrotic. Bubonic plague can progress to lethal septicemic plague in some cases. The plague is also known to spread to the lungs and become the disease known as the pneumonic plague.

Symptoms

The most famous symptom of bubonic plague is swollen lymph glands, called buboes. These are commonly found in the armpits, groin or neck. The bubonic plague was the first step of the ongoing plague. Two other forms of the plague, pneumonic and septicemic, resulted after a patient with the bubonic plague developed pneumonia or blood poisoning.

Other symptoms include spots on the skin that are red at first and then turn black, heavy breathing, continuous blood vomiting, aching limbs, coughing and terrible pain. The pain is usually caused by the actual decaying, or decomposing of the skin while the infected person is still alive.

History

The deadly disease has claimed nearly 200 million lives (although there is some debate as to whether all of the plagues attributed to it are in fact the same disease). There is mention of the plague in I Samuel 5 and 6, with the Philistines trying to remove it with an offering of gold tumors and gold mice to the Israelites. The first recorded epidemic ravaged the Byzantine Empire during the sixth century, and was named the Plague of Justinian after emperor Justinian I, who was infected but survived. The most infamous and devastating instance of the plague was the black death, which killed a quarter to half of the population of Europe. The Black Death is thought to have originated in the Gobi Desert. Carried by the fleas on rats, it spread along trade routes and reached the Crimea in 1346. In 1347 it spread to Constantinople and then Alexandria, killing thousands every day, and soon arrived in Western Europe.

Person infected by the plague

Person infected by the plague

The next few centuries were marked by several local outbreaks of lesser severity. The Great Plague of London, 1665–1666, was the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in Europe. The plague resurfaced in the mid-18th century; like the Black Death, the Third Pandemic began in Central Asia. It spread worldwide, killing millions, into the early 20th century.

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, plague was used as a bacteriological weapon by the Imperial Japanese Army. These weapons were provided by Shirō Ishii‘s units and used in experiments on humans before being used on the field. For example, in 1940, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service bombed Ningbo with fleas carrying the bubonic plague. During the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials the accused, such as Major General Kiyashi Kawashima, testified that, in 1941, some 40 members of Unit 731 air-dropped plague-contaminated fleas on Changde. These operations caused epidemic plague outbreaks.

Treatment

In modern times, several classes of antibiotics are effective in treating bubonic plague. These include the aminoglycosides streptomycin and gentamicin, the tetracyclines tetracycline and doxycycline and the fluoroquinolone ciprofloxacin. Patients with plague in the modern era usually recover completely with prompt diagnosis and treatment.

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1 Comment

  1. June 8, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    […] turn to Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001). [Or check out this detailed post that appeared from after I wrote the […]


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