A recent TV segment (it’s at the end of this article) commented on the recent occurrence of four cases in China of plague over the past month. The medical expert interviewed on the show expressed concern that given the extent of travel from China to the US that the disease might spread here. He did not seem aware that plague has been in the US since 1900. The data presented below are from the CDC.

The disease which regularly wiped out huge segments of the population in Europe and Asia is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It hitches a ride on the rat flea which in turn is a passenger on rats. Other rodents also are carriers of the bug. The rodent too gets the disease. Every seven or so years a large segment of the prairie dog population in Lubbock dies off from the plague. As there are a lot of prairie dogs here; this is nature’s way of keeping the population from taking over every bit of unpaved territory in the city.

Plague first appeared in the US in 1900, likely from rat stowaways on ships from Asia. The disease is now easily treated with commonly available antibiotics and the outcome should be good provided that the diagnosis is made promptly. I saw a case when I was a resident in El Paso. The patient came from New Mexico which is center of American cases of plague. He made a prompt recovery.

As you can see from the graph below, the disease is not a major health problem. And it is not likely to become one because most Americans no longer live in close proximity to carrier rodents and because the disease is easily treated.

I wouldn’t add plague to the long list things to worry about. It must have been a slow news day for this story to make it into a prime time show. But it’s a good reminder that human progress in not retrograde as some would have you believe. Because of modern civilization and drug therapy, the plague has gone from being a plague to a nuisance.


China reports 4th plague case in one month