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A 78-year-old Torrance County, New Mexico man is the first human case of plague in New Mexico or the United States in 2012. Health officials report the yet unnamed man is currently hospitalized in stable condition. According to a New Mexico Department of Health press release Thursday, they confirmed the man as having the plague, or Yersinia pestis today. NM Department of Health Cabinet Secretary, Dr. Catherine Torres said, “The Department of Health takes action when a plague case occurs to ensure the safety of the immediate family, neighbors, and health care providers. We inform neighbors door-to-door about plague found in the area and educate them on reducing their risk. We determine whether individuals close to the patient may also have been exposed to the plague and recommend preventative treatment when necessary.”
Plague is an infectious disease of animals and humans caused by a bacterium named Yersinia pestis. People usually get plague from the bite of a rodent flea that is carrying plague bacteria or by handling an infected animal. Although plague is a rare disease, about half of U.S. cases each year occur in New Mexico. Today, modern antibiotics are effective against plague, but if an infected person is not treated promptly, the disease can be life-threatening.
The second most common manifestation of the plague was the Pneumonic form, which attacked the lungs. People hit by this would cough up blood with phlegm, which would eventually thin to liquid consistency and become bright red. High fever also accompanied this. The mortality rate was extremely high: 90-95%.
The ease with which fleas transmit diseases is what’s made them so deadly. During the Middle Ages when man brought rats containing the Yersinia pestis virus to Europe from Africa. This is what sparked the Black Plague, which claimed more lives than all the wars in human history.
The four forms of the Black Death: septicemic, pneumonic, enteric, and bubonic, were not native to Europe because it is hard for the plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, to subsist in the colder climate that is prevalent in Europe. "Plague bacteria normally reside in Central Asia, Yunan China, Arabia, East Africa, and limited areas of Iran." The reason why they inhabit these generally hotter areas is because they need a warm climate to multiply in. Some historians believe that the Black Death originated in Lake Issyk-Kul in Central Asia. Researchers found that in the years 1338 and 1339 there was a very high death rate reported in Lake Issyk-Kul that was attributed to plague. However, the most striking detail about Lake Issyk-Kul was that it was on the Silk Road. Therefore, the Black Death had its beginnings in Central Asia on the Silk Road, and then it proceeded to spread across the Silk Road into areas that it linked: the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe.
Is there a particular time of the year when plague cases occur?
Yes, the majority of New Mexico plague cases occur during the warmer months of the year –- May through September. Most of these cases result from exposure to plague infected fleas, because this is the time of year when fleas, rodents and people are most active and there are more chances that infected rodents and/or fleas can come in contact with people. However, cases have occurred during other months of the year. Wintertime cases usually result from direct contact or handling of plague-infected animals, as described above