Bubonic plague might be a term that immediately conjures up medieval Europe, but every year many people still die from this disease. In fact, last summer there were four cases in Denver, Colorado. Rodents are one of the main vector species for plague, which is transmitted through bites from their fleas. There are many reasons you don't want rodents in or around your home, but plague just might be the most critical rationale for pest control. So what is the plague, and how concerned should you be that it could affect your city? Could it break out in the United States?
Plague: the facts
There are three types of plague.
Bubonic plague. This is the kind you probably associate with the term "plague," and is the most common type. Once bacteria enter a person's body, they head for the lymphatic system. Within a few days, symptoms similar to the flu begin (headache, fever, chills, weakness, swollen lymph nodes). The lymph node closest to the bite will swell the most. Although the symptoms are similar to the flu, for which people might not seek medical attention, it is important to see a doctor, as the disease can be fatal without intervention.
Septicemic plague. This type of plague develops when the bacteria enter the bloodstream. It can be a complication of bubonic plague or a unique event. It involves similar symptoms as above, but the infected person also develops abdominal pain, shock, and bleeding underneath the skin. Skin appears black from the bleeding, and tissue can become necrotic (dead).
Pneumonic plague. The most dangerous type of plague, pneumonic plague can also be either a complication of bubonic or a distinct event. It can be transmitted between people, unlike the other two types, through droplets expressed into the air by coughing and then inhaled by others. In one to three days, the infection infects the lungs; severe pneumonia develops, with shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, and bloody or watery sputum.
Plague: the numbers
Each year, there are between 1,000 and 3,000 reported cases of plague around the world, although experts believe the actual numbers are higher. Only about 10-15 of those cases occur in the United States, most of them bubonic in nature. Small numbers are perhaps because health officials monitor and test wildlife regularly for the disease, taking careful measures whenever plague does arise in an area. Ongoing pest control is standard procedure for most businesses, which helps to control rodents in urban areas.
Still, there is the potential for plague outbreaks in local areas, as evidenced by the Colorado cases last summer. In fact, Chicago was just ranked the top city for rat infestations in the country (followed closely by Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York City). Health officials poisoned 39,000 rat locations in 2014, and it stands to reason that for every one they knew about, there were many of which they were not aware. If a number of rats in one of these big cities were to test positive for plague, an outbreak could occur. Dr. Tim Brooks, an English infectious disease expert, states plague has the potential to break out once again. Because rodents reproduce so rapidly, aggressive rodent control is critical where they have a stronghold.
Plague: avoiding exposure
If you are an avid outdoorsman or just enjoy occasional hikes in the backcountry, wear clothing that will guard against bites from mice, rats, and squirrels. Look for and obey posted signs regarding plague-infected animals in the area.
When it comes to rodents in and around your home, don't take any chances. Seal any gaps or holes in your walls that could allow access to the home. Replace or repair torn window screens. Don't leave pet food out near doors. If you see signs of a rodent infestation, such as droppings, gnawed wires, shredded papers, and a musty odor, set traps right away. Because rats reproduce rapidly, however, you may want to skip the traps and call a professional pest control company. Even if the rats in your city test negative for plague, they carry a host of other diseases to which you don't want your family exposed.
Plague has not been eradicated in modern times, and, especially if you live in the western United States, it may be nearer to you than you may think. Take action today by doing additional reading and learning to keep rodents away from your home.