Medical experts have traced the 2014 outbreak of plague – a disease largely associated with the middle ages – to a single pit bull.
A report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recounts how a Colorado resident, known as “Patient A,” fell ill in June 2014. After one week, with symptoms of fever, coughing and bloody mucus, he was diagnosed with pneumonic plague (an infection of the plague-causing bacteria Yersinia Pestis) in the lungs. He recovered after three weeks.
Investigators with Colorado’s Tri-County Health Department put two and two together when they learned that the patient’s dog had recently been euthanized because of a severe, bloody cough. Two female veterinary workers who came in contact with the dog fell ill a few days later.
Tests of the pit bull’s lung and liver tissues came back positive for plague. itSoon enough a third woman who had been in contact with Patient A and his sick dog was diagnosed with pneumonic plague. The third woman’s illness could potentially be the first reported case of plague spread from person to person in the US in the last 90 years.
Pneumonic plague, related to the better-known “bubonic plague,” is usually caught by coming into contact with an infected person, although it’s possible to catch it in the air as well.
“The Black Death,” a 14th century epidemic that killed 50 million people throughout Europe, was caused by a combination of pneumonic, bubonic, and septicemic plague. Much more rare these days, 783 cases of plague were reported in 2013, mostly in Africa.
Plague in the US is limited to a handful of cases per year, usually in rural areas, since carriers of plague are usually prairie dogs or rodents. Prairie dogs are common in the American West and should be treated with caution.