Rare New Case of Human Plague Has Health Officials Issuing a New Alert

Find out how you can help prevent further spread of this notorious disease.

The flu, RSV, COVID—and now, the plague? While this notorious infectious disease, which once decimated the population of Europe, hasn't caused a major outbreak in 100 years, it does still pop up with a handful of annual infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average of seven human plague cases are reported each year. And now, a new case of human plague has been detected in rural Oregon, the first time the state has seen the illness in nine years. Read on to discover more about the disease, and what heath officials are warning in light of the recent report.

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A rare new case of human plague was reported in Oregon.

Aerial establishing shot of Bend, Oregon, on a hot and sunny day in summer.
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In a Feb. 7 press release, health officials from Deschutes County, Oregon, announced that there is a confirmed case of human plague in the area. This is the state's first reported case since 2015, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

The CDC says that plague is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, which can be found in many parts of the world. But in the U.S., it's most often found in rural and semi-rural parts of Western states, such as northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, southern Colorado, California, southern Oregon, and western Nevada.

David Wagner, director of the Biodefense and Disease Ecology Center at Northern Arizona University's Pathogen and Microbiome Institute, told NBC News that the plague's "hot spot is really the Four Corners region," near the borders of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico.

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Officials believe the person was infected by their cat.

Sad sick young gray cat lies on a white fluffy blanket in a veterinary clinic for pets. Depressed illness and suppressed by the disease animal looks at the camera. Feline health background.
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Plague typically spreads to humans when they are bitten by an infected flea or come in contact with an animal that is sick with the disease, according to Deschutes County Health Services. In terms of the newly reported Oregon case, health officials said the individual was likely infected by their symptomatic pet cat.

Deschutes County Health Officer Richard Fawcett, MD, told NBC News the the cat was "very sick" and had a draining abscess, which indicated "a fairly substantial infection."

Common plague symptoms in cats include "fever, discharge from the eyes, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, poor hair coat, swollen tongue, mouth ulcers, enlarged tonsils, and an enlarged abdomen," according to the Oregon Public Health Department.

"All close contacts of the resident and their pet have been contacted and provided medication to prevent illness," Fawcett said in a statement.

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Human plague symptoms usually begin two to eight days after exposure.

Doctor examining patient's throat at clinic
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Fawcett told NBC News that the owner's infection likely started out in a lymph node. This is known as bubonic plague, where bacteria will multiply in a lymph node near where it entered the human body, according to the CDC.

Besides visibly swollen lymph nodes, Deschutes County health officials said humans may experience other bubonic plague symptoms, such as "a sudden onset of fever, nausea, weakness, chills, [and] muscle aches" that begin two to eight days after exposure to an infected animal or flea.

If not diagnosed early enough, bubonic plague can progress to one of the two other forms of plague: septicemic plague, which is a bloodstream infection; and pneumonic plague, which is a lung infection. Fawcett said the owner's infection had progressed to the bloodstream by the time they were hospitalized, and some doctors felt that the patient had developed a cough while at the hospital, but it's unclear if the disease had progressed far enough to be considered pneumonic plague, which can transmit among humans.

"This case was identified and treated in the earlier stages of the disease, posing little risk to the community," Deschutes County Health Services indicated in their press release. "No additional cases of plague have emerged during the communicable disease investigation."

Health officials are offering tips to help prevent the spread of plague.

Cat hunter with a caught mouse in her mouth
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While Fawcett told NBC News that he would be "very surprised if we see any other cases" of plague in Oregon, antibiotics were given to the patient's close contacts out of an abundance of caution. Deschutes County Health Services also offered several tips to help mitigate the potential spread of plague.

These include avoiding all contact with rodents and their fleas, as well as keeping pets on a leash when outdoors and protecting them with flea control products.

"Never touch sick, injured, or dead rodents," health officials warned. "Do not allow pets to approach sick or dead rodents or explore rodent burrows."

They also advised residents to keep wild rodents out of homes; remove food, woodpiles, and other attractants for rodents around homes and outbuildings; avoid camping, sleeping, or resting near animal burrows or areas where dead rodents are observed; refrain from feeding squirrels, chipmunks, or other wild rodents in campgrounds and picnic areas; and wear long pants tucked into boot tops to reduce exposure to fleas.

You should be extra careful with pet cats as well, as they are "highly susceptible to plague," according to Deschutes County Health Services.

"If possible, discourage their hunting of rodents," they stated in the press release. "Consult a veterinarian immediately if your cat becomes sick after being in contact with rodents."

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Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Kali Coleman
Kali Coleman is a Senior Editor at Best Life. Her primary focus is covering news, where she often keeps readers informed on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and up-to-date on the latest retail closures. Read more
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