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A Wyoming resident appears to have caught a severe case of the plague in his own cats, health officials reported this week. The woman fell ill with pneumonic plague, a rare form of the disease, which is already very rare. Although the risk of plague is very low in the United States and Wyoming in general, officials have notified others who may have been exposed and may need antibiotic treatment, as pneumonic plague can be transmitted from person to person.
Plague is a bacterial disease that comes in different flavors depending on how the bacteria (Yersinia pestis) infect the body. Most cases are known as bubonic plague and are typically caused by contact, including bites, with infected animals (usually small mammals) or the fleas they carry. In this form, the bacteria penetrate the lymph nodes. If the bacteria get into the respiratory tract, pneumonia develops, which can lead to pneumonia and flu-like symptoms, including an infectious cough. This can happen when plague bacteria spread to the lungs or when a new victim inhales infected droplets from another person with pneumonic plague. Finally, there is septicemic plague, in which the bacteria reach the blood. This can also happen from animal or flea exposure, but is often the result of untreated bubonic plague.
The plague, as the name suggests, was one of the worst threats to humanity and is responsible for some of the deadliest epidemics in history, including the Black Death. But better hygiene and the advent of antibiotics have made the plague much rarer and more dangerous in most parts of the world. However, even in the United States, natural animal hosts for the bacteria still exist, and cases occasionally spread to humans.
Cases in the United States tend to be exposed to wildlife or their fleas, but free-range pets, including cats, have been known to sometimes contract the infection and then pass it on to their owners. And that seems to be the case here, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. On Wednesday, they announced that a resident of northern Fremont County had developed a rare case of pneumonic plague, likely from exposure to “sick domestic cats.”
Courtney Tillman, an epidemiologist with the health department, told Gizmodo in an email that the victim was a woman who is currently suffering from a serious illness.
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Plague, whatever its form, should be treated as soon as possible. But pneumonic plague is of particular concern both because the disease progresses quickly (it can be fatal within a day of symptoms appearing) and because it is the only form that can be contagious to others. People exposed to the plague are usually given antibiotics as prophylactic treatment, and health officials say they will turn to anyone suspected of having been in contact with the woman during the transmission window. So far, however, only one case is known.
Again is the plague very rare in the U.S. There was a single case in 2019 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported each year. This is only the seventh case reported in Wyoming since 1978, although some of them were actually caught out of state. Still, health officials are cautioning that there are sensible ways to protect yourself from this historic disease as much as possible.
“You can assume that the risk of plague is everywhere in our state,” said Alexia Harrist, state health officer and epidemiologist at the health department, all in one opinion Wednesday. “Although the disease is rare in humans, it is important that people take precautions to reduce exposure and seek immediate medical attention if symptoms comparable to the plague develop.”
These precautions include keeping your homes and yards clean to avoid rat infestation; Wearing flea repellants during outdoor activities such as hiking; Always wear gloves when touching potentially infected animals (or simply not touching them at all); and not to sleep with cats and dogs that are allowed to roam freely outside, especially when they appear sick.
This article has been updated with more information from the Wyoming Department of Health.