Advertisement

U.S. man dies from bubonic plague: Should Canadians worry about the 'very rare' disease?

The illness, which is often considered "rare," killed tens of millions of people in medieval Europe.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Health officials in New Mexico have confirmed a resident died from bubonic plague. (Photo via Getty Images)
Health officials in New Mexico have confirmed a resident died from bubonic plague. (Photo via Getty Images)

A man from New Mexico has died from bubonic plague, according to a recent news release from the state's health department. This marks the state's first recorded human case of the plague since 2021 and its first fatality from the disease since 2020.

While the identity of the deceased has not been disclosed to the public, officials confirmed New Mexico Department of Health personnel are engaging with local residents, and an environmental evaluation is slated to take place in the man's community to identify any continuing risks.

Expressing condolences, State Public Health Veterinarian Dr. Erin Phipps emphasized the significance of the death, stating, "We extend our deepest sympathy to the family of the Lincoln County man who succumbed to plague. This tragic incident serves as a clear reminder of the threat posed by this ancient disease and emphasizes the need for heightened community awareness and proactive measures to prevent its spread."

The bubonic plague killed tens of millions of people in medieval Europe — but has recently made headlines after after cases popped up in the U.S. On Feb. 7, health officials in Oregon stated a resident was likely "infected by their symptomatic pet cat," making it the first bubonic plague case in the state since 2015.

In Canada, human cases of the plague are "very rare," a public health spokesperson recently told CTV, which reported that official records of human plague cases began in 1930. The first case in Canada was reported in 1939, and "since then there have been no known cases of human plague in Canada."

Even though the disease is considered rare, should Canadians be worried about getting infected? Here's what you need to know about bubonic plague.


What is bubonic plague?

Plague is caused by the zoonotic bacteria called Yersinia pestis. (Photo via Getty Images)
Plague is caused by the zoonotic bacteria called Yersinia pestis. (Photo via Getty Images)

Bubonic plague is the most common form of plague, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Plague is caused by the zoonotic bacteria called Yersinia pestis, which is typically found in small animals and their fleas.

The infectious disease is very serious in humans, especially in its septicaemic and pneumonic forms, the latter of which the WHO stated is "always fatal" when left untreated.


How is plague transmitted?

People can get plague from the infected fleas of animals, including rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks and prairie dogs. It can also be transmitted by coming in contact with infectious bodily fluids or contaminated materials, or inhaling respiratory droplets or small particles from someone who's infected.

"It is especially contagious and can trigger severe epidemics through person-to-person contact via droplets in the air," the WHO stated.

Plague can be transmitted between humans and animals by bites from infected fleas. (Photo via Getty Images)
Plague can be transmitted between humans and animals by bites from infected fleas. (Photo via Getty Images)

What are the symptoms of plague?

If infected, people will usually see plague symptoms within a one to seven-day incubation period. That may include:

  • Sudden onset fever

  • Chills

  • Head and body aches

  • Weakness

  • Vomiting

  • Nausea

  • Abdominal pain

The three main forms of plague are bubonic, pneumonic and septicemic.

Bubonic is the most common form, where the disease is caused by the bite of an infected flea. The Y. pestis bacteria will enter at the bite, travel through the lymphatic system to a lymph node and then replicate itself. The lymph node then becomes a "bubo" and may spread to the lungs, leading to the more serious form, pneumonic plague.

The pneumonic version has an incubation period that's as short as 24 hours, but can be fatal if not treated early. Someone with pneumonic plague can transmit the disease to another person by droplets.

Septicemic plague is a third form of the disease, where bacteria will multiply in the bloodstream, according to Mayo Clinic. It accounts for less than 20% of all cases, and can be developed from the other two forms of plague, according to Toronto Public Health.


Is plague dangerous?

Sudden fever and aches are some of the symptoms of plague. (Photo via Getty Images)
Sudden fever and aches are some of the symptoms of plague. (Photo via Getty Images)

Plague is rare according to various public health agencies. In Ontario, there have been no cases reported since data on the disease became reportable. The Public Health Agency of Canada noted human plague cases began being reported locally in 1930, with the first case in 1939. Since then, there haven't been any other known cases in the country.

According to the WHO, bubonic plague has a case-fatality ratio of 30 to 60 per cent, while the pneumonic form is "always fatal" if left untreated. The most endemic countries include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar and Peru. However, Mayo Clinic stated there are a few people each year in the United States that will be infected with plague.


How is plague treated?

Plague can usually be treated with antibiotics, and most people with bubonic plague will survive if they get prompt diagnosis and help. Death with septicemic plague is more common because it's difficult to diagnose and worsens rapidly, according to Mayo Clinic. Pneumonic plague is also dangerous and worsens rapidly, where risk of death is high is treatment isn't received within 24 hours after symptoms start.

There's no vaccine available for plague, as a former vaccine reserved for people at high risk of exposure was discontinued in 1998. "Although the vaccine was effective in preventing bubonic plague it did not prevent the pneumonic form and involved multiple injections, with many side effects," Toronto Public Health noted.

However, there are various ways to help reduce your risk of catching the disease. One way is to rodent-proof your home and to remove them if you become aware you're living with them. Otherwise, it's important to protect your pets from fleas, avoid touching dead animals without protection and use insect repellent while outdoors.

Let us know what you think by commenting below and tweeting @YahooStyleCA! Follow us on Twitter and Instagram.