Girl Catches Bubonic Plague From Squirrel

A seven-year-old girl in Colorado is recovering from bubonic plague, the illness that caused the Black Death and wiped out up to 60% of Europe's population in the 14th century.

Sierra Jane Downing became ill after trying to bury a dead squirrel while on a camping trip with her family in Colorado.

She developed a 107 F (41.67 C) fever and had a seizure, prompting her frightened father to rush her to a hospital where she was stabilised before being flown to Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children.

Dr Jennifer Snow, the paediatrician who treated Sierra, said the child's unusual symptoms were puzzling.

She said: "Well the way it came up, the symptoms, the high fever... the bug bites, the exposure to the dead squirrel and the swollen lymph nodes, once I started doing some research and I actually found a case report of a teenager whose symptoms fit Sierra's exactly.

“And that was my 'aha' moment - could this be Yersinia or bubonic plague?  I immediately called Dr Drummond for a consultation at that time," she said.

Infectious disease specialist Dr Wendi Drummond said they had never treated a patient with bubonic plague, but the symptoms clearly fit the diagnosis and there was no time to waste as Sierra's body collapsed into septic shock.

The doctors quickly administered gentamicin, an antibiotic effective against the plague, but Sierra became sicker before improving.

"Certainly, if you get the appropriate treatment early enough, the mortality rate can be low but there's such a short time frame and a short window of opportunity you have to do that and that was the key," said Dr Snow.

She added: "I did tell the parents that I'm always hopeful that everything is going to turn out for the best but I was trying to prepare them somewhat that she was critically ill and this is a life-threatening condition that she had and we were doing absolutely everything we could to save her life."

The Centre for Disease Control estimates that only a handful of Americans are infected with the bubonic plague - which is carried by small rodents and their fleas - every year.

Since it is critical to treat patients in the early stages of infection, treatment is often not delayed for laboratory confirmation.

Doctors expect Sierra to make a full recovery and said she may be discharged within the week.