Centuries-Old Bubonic Plague Is Back: What Is It? Should You Be Worried?

A new case of bubonic plague, responsible for one of the most deadly pandemics in history, was detected in the US.

4 min read

Video Producer/Editor: Garima Sadhwani

A fresh case of bubonic plague – the disease behind the 'black death', one of the most fatal pandemics in human history – was detected recently in Oregon, US, sparking global concern.

On 7 February, health officials in Oregon, US confirmed the first case of bubonic plague in the state since 2015, adding that the infected person contracted the illness from their pet cat.

Have other cases been detected? Why is the bubonic plague considered so deadly? How does it spread and how can you protect yourself?

FIT answers your FAQs.


What do we know about the patient? How is he doing now?

According to the Deschutes County Health officials, the patient was treated with antibiotics and is stable now.

They said that the individual, whose personal details have not been released, received antibiotics swiftly upon detection of the disease, and efforts were made to treat and monitor individuals who had contact with both the person and the cat.

Despite treatment, the cat unfortunately did not survive.

Dr Richard Fawcett, the Deschutes County health officer, stated in a press release, "All close contacts of the resident and their pet have been contacted and provided medication to prevent illness."

Were other cases detected recently?

No, this is a one-off case. Following an investigation into communicable diseases, there have been no additional reports of the plague in others.

In the statement released by the officials earlier last week, they expressed relief that the illness was promptly identified and treated, thereby minimizing potential risks to the community.

What is bubonic plague?

The plague is a zootonic bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, capable of spreading between animals and humans. Typically, Y. pestis resides in small animals like rodents and cats, along with their fleas.

What is the historic significance of the 'black plague'?

The bubonic plague pandemic, popularly known as the 'black death', raged between 1346 and 1353 claiming an estimated 50 million lives in Europe alone.


Apart from being one of the most devastating pandemics in history, the Black Death had profound and lasting effects on European society, including significant demographic shifts, economic upheaval, and widespread fear and social disruption.

In India, the plague arrived much later in the late 1800s and killed upwards of 8 million people according to historians. Although, the actual numbers are thought to be far higher.

How does it spread?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it can spread through three main avenues:

  • Flea Bites: Fleas that have fed on infected animals, such as rats, can transmit the bacterium Yersinia pestis to humans when they bite.

  • Contact with Infected Animals: Direct contact with tissues or body fluids from infected animals, particularly rodents like rats, squirrels, and rabbits, can lead to transmission.

  • Inhalation: In rare cases, the bacterium can be transmitted through inhalation of respiratory droplets from infected animals or humans.

What are the symptoms of bubonic plague

According to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention(US CDC), some general symptoms of bubonic plague include,

  • A sudden onset of fever and chills.

  • Headaches and body aches.

  • Painful, swollen lymph nodes (buboes), usually in the groin, armpit, or neck.

  • Fatigue and weakness.

  • Nausea and vomiting.

  • Rapidly developing septicemia (blood poisoning) leading to shock.

  • Gangrene of extremities in severe cases.

  • In cases of pneumonic plague, symptoms may include cough, chest pain, and difficulty breathing.

It's important to note that symptoms can vary in severity and may progress rapidly, leading to life-threatening complications if left untreated.


How is it treated?

Antibiotics: Prompt administration of antibiotics, such as streptomycin, gentamicin, or doxycycline, can help treat bubonic plague and preventing its progression.

Supportive Care: Symptoms can be contained with the help of supportive measures such as hydration, pain management, and respiratory support.

Isolation: If the illness progressed to pneumonic plague, a more contagious form of the disease, the patient may require isolation to prevent the spread of the infection to others.

Contact Tracing: Identifying and treating individuals who have been in close contact with infected patients is crucial for preventing further transmission of the disease.

Public Health Measures: Implementing public health interventions such as rodent control, flea eradication, and education on preventive measures can help reduce the risk of bubonic plague outbreaks in endemic areas.

what precautions can I take to prevent contracting the infection?

  • Avoid contact with rodents: Minimize contact with rodents, their nests, and droppings, especially in areas where the disease is prevalent.

  • Rodent control: Implement measures to control rodent populations, such as sealing gaps in buildings, securing food sources, and using traps or pesticides.

  • Avoiding flea bites: Use insect repellents and wear protective clothing to prevent flea bites when in areas where bubonic plague is endemic.

  • Pet care: Ensure your pets are treated for fleas regularly and avoid allowing them to roam in areas where they may come into contact with infected animals.

  • Prompt treatment: Seek medical attention immediately if you develop symptoms of bubonic plague, especially if you have been in contact with rodents or fleas.

  • Public health measures: Follow recommendations from public health authorities regarding outbreaks of bubonic plague, including vaccination campaigns, quarantine measures, and public education initiatives.


Is there risk of another bubonic plague pandemic breaking out?

No, there is no need to worry about another 'Black Death'. Medical experts do not anticipate the disease spreading beyond Oregon or causing fatalities in humans.

Bubonic plague outbreaks ceased to be a significant concern by the 1930s, according to the US CDC.

Presently a few thousand cases of plague are reported globally each year, predominantly in Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Peru. The mortality rate in these regions is approximately 11 percent.

This is because we now have very effective antibiotics that are capable of combating Yersinia pestis, as well as improved hygiene practices and understanding of the disease.

According to the US CDC, all forms of plague can be effectively treated with commonly available antibiotics, and early treatment significantly enhances the chances of survival.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Plague   FAQ 

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