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Plague is an infectious disease of animals and humans caused by a bacterium named Yersinia pestis. People usually get plague from being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an infected animal.
Millions of people in Europe died from plague in the Middle Ages, when human homes and places of work were inhabited by flea-infested rats. Today, modern antibiotics are effective against plague. In the United States, the last urban plague epidemic occurred in Los Angeles in 1924-25. Since then, human plague in the United States has occurred as mostly scattered cases in rural areas (an average of 10 to 15 persons each year). Globally, the World Health Organization reports 1,000 to 3,000 cases of plague every year.
Plague is transmitted from animal to animal and from animal to human by the bites of infective fleas. Less frequently, the organism enters through a break in the skin by direct contact with tissue or body fluids of a plague-infected animal, for instance, in the process of skinning a rabbit or other animal. Plague is also transmitted by inhaling infected droplets expelled by coughing, by a person or animal, especially domestic cats, with pneumonic plague. Transmission of plague from person to person is uncommon and has not been observed in the United States since 1924 but does occur as an important factor in plague epidemics in some developing countries.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
The pathognomic sign of plague is a very painful, usually swollen, and often hot-to-the touch lymph node, called a bubo. This finding, accompanied with fever, extreme exhaustion, and a history of possible exposure to rodents, rodent fleas, wild rabbits, or sick or dead carnivores should lead to suspicion of plague.
Onset of bubonic plague is usually 2 to 6 days after a person is exposed. Initial manifestations include fever, headache, and general illness, followed by the development of painful, swollen regional lymph nodes. Occasionally, buboes cannot be detected for a day or so after the onset of other symptoms. The disease progresses rapidly and the bacteria can invade the bloodstream, producing severe illness, called plague septicemia.
Once a human is infected, a progressive and potentially fatal illness generally results unless specific antibiotic therapy is given. Progression leads to blood infection and, finally, to lung infection. The infection of the lung is termed plague pneumonia, and it can be transmitted to others through the expulsion of infective respiratory droplets by coughing.
The incubation period of primary pneumonic plague is 1 to 3 days and is characterized by development of an overwhelming pneumonia with high fever, cough, bloody sputum, and chills. For plague pneumonia patients, the death rate is over 50%.
As soon as a diagnosis of suspected plague is made, the patient should be isolated, and local and state health departments should be notified. Confirmatory laboratory work should be initiated, including blood cultures and examination of lymph node specimens if possible. Drug therapy should begin as soon as possible after the laboratory specimens are taken. The drugs of choice are streptomycin or gentamycin, but a number of other antibiotics are also effective.
Those individuals closely associated with the patient, particularly in cases with pneumonia, should be traced, identified, and evaluated. Contacts of pneumonic plague patients should be placed under observation or given preventive antibiotic therapy, depending on the degree and timing of contact.