In the past week, reports have emerged from Idaho of a young boy who contracted bubonic plague. Here, we cover all the details and relay the official safety advice.

Yersinia Pestis electron microscope. Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH Share on Pinterest
Y. pestis, the bacterium responsible for bubonic plague.
Image credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH

Bubonic plague is one of three types of plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

It is passed to humans by the bite of an infected flea, which can be spread far and wide by hitching a ride on small animals.

Y. pestis resides in some animal populations — such as ground squirrels — in the United States, but it is very rare to see it passed to humans.

This most recent case occurred in a 14-year-old boy in Elmore County, ID. At this stage, it is not clear whether the child — who has remained anonymous — contracted the disease in his home state of Idaho or during a recent trip to Oregon.

However, according to officials, ground squirrels near the child’s home had tested positive for Y. pestis in both 2015 and 2016.

The news was initially broken by Elmore County Central District Health Department (CDHD). In their statement, they make it clear that this is not an emerging pattern of infections, saying:

“Since 1990, eight human cases were confirmed in Oregon, and two were confirmed in Idaho.”

This is the first case of bubonic plague in the state for 26 years and only the fifth since 1940. The press release continues, “Symptoms of plague usually occur within 2–6 days of exposure and include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, and weakness.”

“In most cases, there is also a painful swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin, armpit, or neck.”

In the Middle Ages, the plague descended on Europe. It is known as the Black Death, and it killed an incredible one third to one half of the continent’s population.

With medical advancements today, the disease can be treated. The Elmore County CDHD news release provides us with a dash of comfort, saying that “[p]rompt diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic treatment can greatly reduce the risk of death.”

Importantly, the CDHD also offer some advice to help minimize the risk of contracting plague. They explain signs to look out for in pets:

“Plague signs in cats and dogs include fever, lethargy, and loss of appetite. There may be a swelling in the lymph nodes under the jaw.”

If you are in the area, they offer further detailed advice:

  • Don’t touch wild rodents or their dead bodies.
  • Keep pets from roaming and hunting rodents — when an animal dies from the plague, the fleas leave the body to look for a new host.
  • Ask a veterinarian about flea control before visiting areas where ground squirrels are common.
  • If you find a number of dead ground squirrels, you should report it to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
  • Don’t feed rodents.
  • Clean up areas near the home where rodents might live.
  • Store hay, wood, and compost as far from the home as possible.
  • Don’t leave pet food and water where rodents can access it.

Although bubonic plague is considered to be a disease of the distant past, in some parts of the world it does, occasionally, rear its ugly head. For instance, in 2017, there was a 4-month long outbreak in Madagascar. There were around 2,300 suspected cases and over 200 deaths.

According to Sarah Correll, an epidemiologist with the CDHD, “The great news is the child is recovering and received appropriate antibiotic treatment.”

Medical News Today contacted the CDHD to inquire about the boy’s recovery and any other updates. We were told:

The child is continuing to do well and recovering at home. We do not know yet if the disease was contracted in Oregon or Idaho.”

Hopefully, any potential outbreaks will be nipped in the bud by following the rules above.