Time Warps: Bubonic Plague


Image Source: Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images via The National Post.

Last week, Californian campgrounds were closed when a squirrel tested positive for bubonic plague:
Campgrounds at a California national park have been closed after officials found a plague-infested squirrel. The squirrel was trapped earlier this month and found to be infected with the bacteria that causes plague — also known as the Black Death that is estimated to have wiped out up to 50% of the European population in the 14th and 15th centuries. The plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, mostly found in rats and fleas that feed off them.
“Plague is a very serious illness, but is treatable with commonly available antibiotics. The earlier a patient seeks medical care and receives treatment that is appropriate for plague, the better their chances are of a full recovery, says the Center for Disease Control and Prevention on its website.
“It is important for the public to know that there have only been four cases of human plague in Los Angeles County residents since 1984, none of which were fatal,” said L.A. County health officer Dr. Jonathan Fielding in a statement.
The last urban plague epidemic in the United States occurred in Los Angeles in 1924-1925. In 2012, a Portland Oregon man contracted bubonic plague when he took a mouse out of his cat's mouth. HuffPo included photos of his afflicted limbs (caution - graphic images below the jump):
The welder's once-strong hands have been withered by the cell-killing infection and darkened to the color of charcoal. Doctors are waiting to see if they can save a portion of his fingers, but the outlook is grim for the man who needs them for his livelihood.
"I don't think I can do my job," Gaylord said in a phone interview from a Bend, Ore., hospital. "I'm going to lose all my fingers on both hands. I don't know about my thumbs. The toes – I might lose all them, too."
Gaylord, who turns 60 next month, contracted a rare case of the plague trying to take a mouse from the jaws of a choking cat at his home in Prineville, in rural Oregon.
He faces a difficult recovery now that he's out of intensive care. His family is trying to raise money to get him into a new house, because the manufactured home he was living in has a leaky roof, a moldy bathroom and mice – dangerous living conditions for a man with a weakened immune system.
"We didn't even know the plague was around anymore," said his sister, Diana Gaylord. "We thought that was an ancient, ancient disease."
The bacterium that causes the plague is carried by fleas, which can infect people and animals. The disease that killed millions in the Middle Ages is extremely rare in current times – an average of seven cases occur in the U.S. each year.
Gaylord's illness began after he saw a stray cat – who he'd named Charlie – with a dead mouse jammed in the back of his throat. The cat appeared to be choking, so Gaylord and a friend attempted to dislodge the mouse.
The friend also contracted the disease, but she was treated successfully before it progressed. In another 2012 case, a 7-year-old Colorado girl contracted the plague after burying a dead squirrel. Also in 2012, the FDA approved a new 2012 antibiotic, Levaquin, known generically as levofloxacin, and made by Johnson & Johnson, to treat the plague.
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