A Child In Idaho Has Contracted The First Local Case Of Bubonic Plague In Nearly 30 Years

The bacterium that causes the plague is transmitted to a new host through the saliva introduced by a flea bite. The pathogen prefers to live inside the bodies of rodents, and is extremely deadly in humans if left unchecked. Jarabogu/Shutterstock

A child in Elmore County, Idaho, is in recovery after the contracting an infection of the Yersinia pestis bacteria – a disease so infamous that it is simply called the plague; though you may know it from its other memorable title, the Black Death.

The announcement, issued by the state’s Central District Health Department (CDHD), marks the first confirmed case of plague in Idaho in 26 years.

Having evolved to live inside rodents, Yersinia pestis is primarily transmitted to new hosts – including us humans – via flea bites. Because rats and mice have been following traveling humans to new settlements and civilizations for thousands of years, it was difficult to pinpoint where the bacteria first arose until DNA sequencing came onto the scene. We now know that the microbe is native to the mountainous steppe region of central Asia, yet is currently circulating, at various levels, in rodent populations across the world.

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World Health Organization

One of the more significant plague reservoirs is the western United States, which is why many parks in this region post signs warning visitors to keep their distance from wild rodents and to wear protective clothing and/or insect repellent. But despite its lurking presence, the number of human infections reported annually in the US is very low – only about 1 to 17 for the past several decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Per the Idaho CDHD press release, the unnamed child had taken a recent trip to Oregon. Because the infection can incubate for a few days, it is impossible to determine where he or she came into contact with a Y. pestis-carrying flea. Since 1990, there have been eight confirmed cases in Oregon and two in Idaho.

Christine Myron, the CDHD spokesperson, told the Washington Post that the child became ill late last month, and was treated with antibiotics at an Elmore area hospital. Earlier this week, laboratory test results came back that confirmed it was a case of bubonic plague – the most common of the three forms of the disease.

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