A person in Wyoming has developed a rare but severe case of pneumonic plague and is reported to have contracted the infection from a domestic cat.
The Wyoming Department of Health announced on September 15 that the patient with pneumonic plague “had contact with sick domestic cats.” Cat owners don’t need to panic, however. While the plague has a bad rap (the deadliest pandemic in recorded history isn’t good for PR), the risk of plague in the US is low, with 1 to 17 cases per year, according to the CDC.
The bacteria that cause the plague (Yersinia pestis) have a life cycle that involves rodents and their fleas, both of which act as long-term reservoirs for the bacteria. Occasionally, the rodents or fleas will transfer the bacteria to another species. This patient’s adventurous cat may have come into contact with an infected rodent while rummaging in the open air, then came into close contact with the owner and infected him with the bacteria.
The plague can also be transmitted from person to person through close contact with someone who has pneumonic plague. Therefore, the WDH notifies people who have had contact with the infected patient and who may need a preventive dose of antibiotics.
Yersinia pestis is best known as the pathogen that caused the black death in the form of bubonic plague. This was the deadliest pandemic in human history, killing between 75 and 200 million people. However, researchers have found evidence of the bacteria in hunters and gatherers who died over 5,000 years ago.
pest was first introduced into the United States via rat-infested ships in the early 20th century. Most cases of the plague in the United States have been isolated to the western side of the country, mainly in northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, southern Colorado, California, southern Oregon, and westernmost Nevada.
However, the most recent cases in the US were bubonic plague, not pulmonary plague. The disease is coming three forms: Bumps, pulmonary and septicemia. Bumps is the most common form of the disease, most commonly transmitted to humans through a flea bite. Along with a fever, headache, chills, and weakness, it can also lead to one or more painfully swollen lymph nodes called buboes. If left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body.
The pneumonic plague is considered to be more contagious. It is transmitted from person to person through airborne droplets, or when bubonic plague or septicemic plague spreads to the lungs if left untreated. This form causes symptoms such as fever, headache, and weakness. It also causes quickly developing pneumonia with shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, and sometimes bloody phlegm. All forms of the disease can be fatal, although if detected early they can be treated with antibiotics.
Dr. Alexia Harrist, state health officer and state epidemiologist at WDH, said the risk of contracting the plague in Wyoming is very low. However, the disease has already been documented in pets and wildlife across the state, so it is advisable to remain cautious about any known rodent habitats.
“It is safe to assume that the risk of plague is everywhere in our state,” said Dr. Harrist in one opinion. “Although the disease is rare in humans, it is important that people take precautions to reduce exposure and seek immediate medical attention if symptoms compatible with the plague develop.”