Teen Girl Gets Actual Plague

Rodents: carrying the plague for centuries.
Rodents: carrying the plague for centuries. Photo: Mary Altaffer/Corbis

Health officials in Oregon reported today that a teenage girl has contracted bubonic plague during a camping trip, likely from a flea. She’s currently hospitalized and they don’t believe anyone else has been infected. Thanks to modern medicine, the infectious bacterial disease that killed millions of people in the Middle Ages is treatable with antibiotics when caught early — but there’s no vaccine for it, so unfortunately it’s still around.

People can get the plague from the fleas of rodents (including rats, mice, squirrels, or chipmunks), fleas on your pets, or from handling sick or dead animals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infections are more common in the western United States but they are thankfully rare: There are an average of seven human cases reported annually, but last year Colorado saw four cases in one week.

There are three kinds of plague but the majority of cases in the U.S. are the bubonic type, which is characterized by sudden high fever, headaches, and swollen and painful lymph nodes or “buboes” in the groin, armpit, or neck. If you live in an area where the disease occurs, experts recommend avoiding rodents and fleas like, well, the plague. Speaking of which, seems like this often-treatable illness could use a new, slightly less medieval name.