A Child in Idaho Is Infected With Bubonic Plague in Rare U.S. Case of Fatal Disease

When a child in Idaho had a spiking fever this week, his parents rushed him to a health care provider. They were surprised to learn that he had an unlikely case of the bubonic plague.

One of the oldest identifiable diseases known to man, the plague is still widely spread in warm parts of the world. It’s mostly transmitted through rodents and fleas, but humans can also be infected. It’s possible that the U.S. case came from an animal bite or a fleabite, Christine Myron, public information officer at the Central District Health Department in Idaho told Newsweek.

“People can decrease their risk by treating their pets for fleas and avoiding contact with wildlife,” Sarah Correll, a Central District Health Department epidemiologist, said in a statement.

0613bacteriaplague Plague bacteria is mostly transmitted through rodents and fleas, but humans can also be infected. It’s possible that the U.S. case came from an animal bite or a fleabite. Getty Images

Local health officials suspect that the boy contracted the disease when he was playing outside on a family trip to Oregon, but they don’t know for sure.

The boy is now resting at home and is expected to survive. “He is recovering and doing well,” said Myron.

Human infection cases in the United States are relatively rare. In recent decades, an average of seven human plague cases have been reported each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

This most recent case marks the first human diagnosis in Idaho since 1992, but in recent years there have been outbreaks in the local squirrel population. Epidemiologists warn that people still need to be careful about what animals they come into contact with. 

“It could still be out there in our wildlife,” said Myron.

The plague was brought to the United States around 1900 by rat-infested steamships that had sailed from areas with high infection rates. Port cities suffered the consequences and plague epidemics flourished, until there was a slow halt in the 1920s. The disease was later spread from urban rats to rural rodent populations, and a small number of cases have since emerged in rural areas, according to the CDC.

The bubonic plague is the most common form of plague and is characterized by painful swollen lymph nodes. If the infection is not treated right away, the inflamed lymph nodes can turn into open sores filled with pus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Plague can be a very severe disease in people, with a fatality rate of up to 60 percent.

Early diagnosis and early treatment can save lives since antibiotic treatment is effective against the plague bacteria. 

“Unfortunately it is a reminder that it is still out there and people certainly need to be aware,” said Myron.

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