Bubonic plague signs, symptoms and how to spot as person struck down with medieval illness in US

Symbol on a grave of someone who died by the plague. Scotland.
-Credit: (Image: Getty)

A new case of a disease rarely seen for decades has been detected in the United States, after one unlucky person was diagnosed with the bubonic plague. Once deemed responsible for a combined total of 50 million deaths across Africa, Asia and Europe in the 14th Century, at the height of its grip on the world, the so-called ‘black death’ wiped out almost half of Europe’s population in just a few short weeks.

Yet despite its disastrous impact, the last terrifying outbreak in London was the Great Plague of 1665, which killed about a fifth of the city's inhabitants. Further deadly outbreaks also went on to occur during the 19th Century pandemic in China and India, which killed more than 12 million people.

These days, the plague is rarely seen in the US and Europe, but unfortunately the disease has not been consigned to the dustbin of history, such as other illnesses such as smallpox. In fact, the bubonic plague continues to be endemic in Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru.

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Worryingly however, a case has now been diagnosed in an unnamed person from Colorado, and authorities continue to be baffled about how exactly they contracted the disease, which is typically spread by infected animals and flea bites. One possible theory is that it’s down to squirrels in the state, after scientists previously found samples of the bacteria colonising the tree-dwelling critters, reports The Sun.

It isn’t the only case to have been detected in the US either, as cases in rural parts of the country continue to occur, such as Northern Arizona, southern Colorado and southern Oregon.

A chart shows the cycle of infection to contract the bubonic plague
Bubonic plague. Plague bacterium infection scheme: rat-flea-human. Color vector illustration. The path of infection with a dangerous disease. Isolated blue round background. Science and medicine. Acute infectious disease. Black Death. Idea for web design. -Credit:Getty

In fact, at the start of the year back in February, one unlucky cat owner from Oregon contracted the illness after her cat tested positive for the infection, yet unlike in previous generations, it was successfully treated with antibiotics and the patient continues to make a good recovery.

Following the diagnosis, health officials were keen to reiterate that there was “little risk” to other people in the community at the time, however just one month later a man in Lincoln County, New Mexico sadly died from the infection.

The disease - typically transmitted from animals to humans by fleas - has a 30-to- 60% fatality rate if left untreated. However, antibiotics are effective if patients are diagnosed early.

Most cases of the disease also tend to occur in Summer, as more and more people flock outdoors to make the most of the warmer weather and get to grips with nature. At present, the biggest vector for contracting the illness stems from wild animals, with prairie dogs in particular being the cause, largely due to their sociable nature.

It's the existence of this "animal reservoir" that makes the plague hard, if not impossible, to eradicate, reports the BBC.

"Unless we exterminate rodents, [the plague] is always going to be around,” argues Daniel Epstein of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Rats and fleas were largely the cause of the large scale outbreaks seen in the middle ages
Rats and fleas were largely the cause of the large scale outbreaks seen in the middle ages -Credit:Getty

What are the signs and symptoms of bubonic plague?

Many of the symptoms of the plague resemble those of flu, and can include any of the following:

  • Sudden fever

  • Chills

  • Severe head and muscle aches

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Swollen lymph nodes

  • Blackening of the hands and feet

How can I protect myself?

While the risk of contracting bubonic plague is extremely low, NHS Fit to Travel advises travellers visiting Colorado to practise the use of insect repellents when near nature, avoid any close contact with sick or dead animals and crowded areas in regions where plague has recently been reported.

It is also recommended that individuals refrain from any direct contact with dead animals unless essential, and in these cases to wear DEET insect repellent at all times to protect against flea bites.

If you do think you have been infected, seek medical attention immediately as the disease is easily treatable thanks to advances in modern medicine - but left untreated, most infected patients will die within a week.