Jun 30, 2017

There's no need to freak out about new plague cases

Rocky Mountain Laboratories / NIAID / NIH

Two new cases of plague were reported in New Mexico this week, bringing the total number of cases this year up to three. People on Twitter have blamed the infections on everything from "Obamacare" to biblical prophecy. It's been covered by virtually every media outlet (and now us, too).

The bottom line: Plague is a deadly illness that should be taken seriously — but scientists and public health officials say these cases are totally normal. The only thing unusual is how much attention they're getting.

Where it is: Plague plagues the West Coast annually, and most infections occur in the Southwest. Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes it, hangs out in rodents and their fleas. In rural New Mexico, large populations of animals like prairie dogs, mice, chipmunks, and rock squirrels serve as a reservoir for the disease, says Paul Ettestad, the state's public health veterinarian.

How often it occurs: Natalie Kwit, CDC epidemiologist, says there are an average of seven plague cases a year in the U.S., and three cases is "typical, given the average." Ettestad says New Mexico usually sees about three a year, though "it's still early. Most cases occur in June, July and August." Even if there are a few more infections, it wouldn't be abnormal.

If you live somewhere with plague, Ettestad and Kwit offer the same advice: don't feed rodents or touch sick or dead animals, and treat your pets for fleas. If there are wood piles or other rodent habitat near your home, remove them. If you feel a pressing need to walk through a prairie dog colony, wear insect repellant. If you become sick after potentially being exposed, go to a hospital.

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