According to the New Mexico Department of Health, two new cases of the plague have been confirmed in Santa Fe County, New Mexico involving a 52-year old woman and a 62-year old woman. The news comes after the first confirmed case of the plague in 2017 appeared in a 62-year old man, also living in Santa Fe County.
Though all three of them were hospitalized, thankfully there has been no reports of deaths. Health officials are currently searching the area to make sure there are no additional risks for neighbors.
While news of the plague might seem alarming, cases are still very rare (on average, around seven per year). In 2015, however, health officials saw an unusual spike. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 people were transmitted the plague that year, typically in rural and semi rural areas of the western part of the country — mainly New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.
While the plague typically occurs from late spring to early fall, it can be found any time of the year. According to Dr. Natalie Kwit, a veterinarian with the division of vector borne diseases at the CDC, a reason for the spike of plague cases in 2015 is still unknown.
"If rodents aren't out and about and humans aren't, there will be no exposure," Kwit said to CNN, adding that the number of "cases does tend to fluctuate due to interaction between fleas, the rodents they are on, and what the humans are doing."
Yersinia pests, the bacteria causing the plague, is naturally occurring in the environment and is usually found in areas where wild rodents persist. The CDC reports that in humans, plague is characterized by “the sudden onset of fever and malaise, which can be accompanied by abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.”
The CDC also characterizes three main forms of plague as:
The Bubonic plague, which results from the bite of an infected flea (and accounts for 80 to 85 percent of cases) and insights the development of a “bubo,” or a painful swelling of one or several lymph nodes. Flu like symptoms will develop one to seven days after exposure to Yersinia pests. The plague was made famous in the late Middle Ages when it was called the “Black Death” and killed nearly a third of the human population. ("A plague on both your houses!" Remember that one by Shakespeare?)
Septicemic plague, which accounts for 10 percent of cases, occurs from a flea bite or from direct contact with infectious fluids. Infection will spread directly through the bloodstream with no localizing signs.
Primary pneumonic plague, which is around 3 percent of cases, results from aerosol exposure to infective droplets and is characterized by a fulminate primary pneumonia. When the bacteria is spread to the lungs, it is then classified as secondary pneumonic plague.
While historically the mortality rate hasn’t been that great among humans who’ve contracted the plague (66 to 93 percent, reports the CDC), in this day and age with antibiotics, that number has been reduced to about 16 percent.
Drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for treatment of plague include streptomycin and doxycycline.