Bubonic Plague in Modern Times?

While flu is the illness that has been a widespread killer for centuries, Black Death also known as the plague has also tortured many souls as well. Its reach extends for centuries with a major epidemic in the 6th century in the Byzantine Empire and again in 14th century Europe. Flash forward to today and a few hundred cases each year worldwide can be attributed to the plague with the death toll at 15-20%.

Yersinia pestis is a gram negative bacterium which causes the common plague. For centuries, the host for this plague was the disgusting rat but these days other rodents share in spreading the disease like prairie dogs, rock squirrels and ground squirrels. What happens is these infected rodents are infested with fleas which nibble on some blood and skin. In turn, these fleas, now carrying the plague, hop to other hosts in search of another meal.

Humans who come into contact with these rodents, usually in the wild, may have these fleas hop on and start nibbling them. The bite from the infected flea then causes the lymphatic system in your body to become infected which can lead to the bubonic plague. Someone developing a biological weapon could conceivably aerosolize these bacteria and release it into the air. If breathed in, it causes the pneumonic plague, an infection of the pulmonary system.

Bioterrorism at its Worst

While not likely, some form of plague could conceivably be used as a biological weapon. It seems every major country has its own labs testing plagues to transform them into workable weapons to devastate the enemy.

In fact, the Japanese used the plague during WWII against the Chinese by releasing infected fleas and to this day, parts of China still encounters cases of the plague. You are much more likely to develop the plague cuddling up to your favorite rodents.

Symptoms of the Plague

You must be bitten by an infected flea in order to contract the bubonic plague. Typically, the incubation period is anywhere from two to seven days. The first thing you might notice is a bad headache, followed by fatigue, fever and achy muscles. Several hours after the sudden onset of these symptoms, your lymph nodes in the groin and armpit area may become painful and swollen. If not treated, over half of all people who contract it could die.

Close contact with someone with the plague, such as droplets from their respiratory system (like a sneeze or cough) could cause pneumonic plague. The incubation period is quicker with this form at one to four days. You will suddenly feel muscle pain, fever, fatigue and develop a cough. The next stage of pneumonic plague is the coughing up of blood, labored breathing and cyanosis, which is a bluish coloration due to lack of oxygen in the blood. Everyone who contracts this could die unless treated.

Treatment of the Plague

Just think … this deadly serious illness is caused by the bite of an infected flea. Luckily, if caught in time, plague can be treated successfully with antibiotics. For some though who contract a plague strain that is resistant to some forms of antibiotics, the fight to live will be a little tougher. If you know that you have been exposed to the plague but have not shown symptoms yet, you can head it off at the pass with an antibiotic course of treatment.

Luckily, the plague is something that most of the world does not have to worry about any longer. However, as long as there are rodents and the fleas that bite them, there will always be that small chance.