Case Of Plague Confirmed In California For First Time In Years

“Yersinia pestis is the nastiest thing alive... It's the most virulent bacterial organism known to mankind.” Everett Collection/Shutterstock

A person in California has fallen ill with the plague, marking the first time the disease has been spotted in the state for five years. 

The El Dorado County Department of Health and Human Services announced on Monday that a person from South Lake Tahoe had tested positive for the plague. They have received medical attention and are now recovering at home.

It’s unclear how the person became infected, but health officials say it’s likely they were bitten by an infected flea while walking their dog along the Truckee River Corridor north of Highway 50 or the Tahoe Keys area in South Lake Tahoe.

Despite its reputation, the plague is now easily treatable with antibiotics if caught early. However, it’s still a concern in many parts of the world, not excluding North America. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded just over 1,000 confirmed or probable human plague cases in the US between 1900 and 2012.

"Plague is naturally present in many parts of California, including higher elevation areas of El Dorado County,” Dr Nancy Williams, El Dorado County Public Health Officer, said in the statement. “It's important that individuals take precautions for themselves and their pets when outdoors, especially while walking, hiking and/or camping in areas where wild rodents are present. Human cases of plague are extremely rare but can be very serious.”

The plague is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. It’s perhaps best known as the disease suspected of causing the “Black Death” pandemic that killed between 75 and 200 million people across Eurasia and North Africa in the 1300s. 

The disease is a particularly nasty character. A study in 2005 found the Y. pestis effectively disables parts of the immune system of its host by injecting toxins into defense cells that scope out potential pathogens, allowing the bacteria to lay undetected and run riot. 

Yersinia pestis is the nastiest thing alive," said Professor Olaf Schneewind, one of the authors of the 2005 study and professor and chairman of microbiology at the University of Chicago. “It's the most virulent bacterial organism known to mankind.”

People infected with the disease develop an influenza-like illness involving fever, chills, aches, weakness, vomiting, and nausea. The disease comes in a number of forms. Bubonic plague, the most common form of the disease, causes swollen and painful lymph nodes but isn’t associated with human-to-human transmission. Pneumonic plague, however, affects the respiratory system and can be spread from human to human via airborne particles thrown out from coughs and splutters. There's another form known as Septicemic plague that results in the skin turning a blackish-purple color. 

Bubonic plague is typically spread by fleas and the small mammals, notably rodents, that they latch onto. In light of the recent case, health authorities say they’re continuing to monitor rodent populations for plague activity in California. They also instructed people to not feed squirrels, chipmunks, or other wild rodents and maintain their distance from any dead animals.

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