An outbreak of the bubonic plague in China has led to worry that the “Black Death” could make a significant return.
At least three people in China have been diagnosed with the disease.
But experts say the disease is not nearly as deadly as it was thanks to antibiotics.
This past Saturday, a hunter in China was diagnosed with bubonic plague after catching and eating a wild rabbit.
Twenty-eight people who had been in close contact with the hunter are now in quarantine, according to the local health commission.
The plague diagnosis comes about a week after the Chinese government announced two other people had contracted pneumonic plague in Beijing — the infamous plague that triggered the Black Death, which wiped out millions of people in Europe in the 14th century.
With words like bubonic plague and Black Death circulating in our headlines, some may wonder if the plague is coming for the United States next — and, if so, what kind of damage it may cause.
But, fortunately, we’re in the clear: not only is the bubonic plague incredibly rare in the U.S., but it’s also treatable. So this means there’s pretty much no chance we’d ever see a pandemic play out like the one in the 14th century.
“Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted,” Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told Healthline. “We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick.”
Here’s how the plague spreads
The bubonic plague is a serious infection of the lymphatic system, which is caused by bacteria called Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis).
Y. pestis spreads via infected fleas or animals, like rodents, squirrels, or hares, which can be passed into humans who are bit or scratched.
The plague can cause a range of symptoms, such as fever, vomiting, bleeding, organ failure, and open sores.
If the infection isn’t treated immediately, the bacteria can spread in the bloodstream and cause sepsis, or septicemic plague, Kappagoda explained. If the bacteria infects the lungs, it can cause pneumonia or pneumonic plague.
Without treatment, the bubonic plague can cause death in up to 60 percent of patients who get it, according to the World Health OrganizationTrusted Source (WHO).
But as long as you don’t touch an animal that’s infected with the plague germs, your chances of getting the plague are incredibly low.
The plague is extremely rare. Only a couple thousand casesTrusted Source are reported worldwide each year, most of which are in Africa, India, and Peru.
The U.S. only sees about seven cases a yearTrusted Source and they’re typically reported in Southwestern states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, where wild rodents carry the bacteria.
“There is transmission of plague among wild rodents only in certain areas of the U.S., and these areas are generally very sparsely populated so there is not much opportunity for humans to come into contact with fleas or animals carrying the plague,” Kappagoda said.
Another reason plague is so rare is that the bacteria doesn’t survive well in sunlight.
“Y. pestis is easily killed by sunlight. If the bacteria is released into air it can survive for up to one hour depending on the environmental conditions,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital, said.
Additionally, bubonic and septicemic plagues can’t be passed from person to person, Glatter added.
And although human-to-human transmission can happen with pneumonic plague when someone spreads infected cough droplets into the air, it is very rare.
“Person-to-person transmission is less likely since it requires close and direct contact with a person with pneumonic plague,” Glatter said.