Yes, You Can Still Get the Bubonic Plague

When someone comes down with fever, chills, headache and swollen glands, no one’s first thought is “it must be the plague.” It’s probably not their 27th thought either. But thanks to a few quick-on-their-feet Colorado doctors, an air lift to Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children and confirmation by an infectious disease specialist, 7-year-old Sierra Jane Downing is recovering from bubonic plague, a potentially fatal disease.

Known as the “black death” in the Middle Ages, the plague took out 25 million people across Europe. People died within days. Now the plague can be treated with antibiotics if it’s caught in its early stages (typically 24 hours of symptoms onset), if not, it’s still deadly — even with treatment 11 percent of infected persons can die, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

How can someone get it?

The plague is a bacterial infection carried by rodents and transmitted by their fleas. It attacks the lymph nodes (bubonic), the blood (septicemic) or the lungs (pneumonic). Downing probably contracted the plague — in her case, bubonic — from fleas feeding off a dead squirrel at a Colorado campground. After trying to give the deceased rodent a proper burial, it seems the little girl was bitten by the disease-carrying fleas, according to NBC News. She later came down with a fever that spiked to 107 Fahrenheit and started having seizures, prompting her parents to rush her to the ER.

It turns out that Downing’s case isn’t the only one to crop up recently. In 2011 a case was reported in New Mexico, and 13 cases were diagnosed in four states during 2006. The CDC puts the average number of plague infections in the U.S. per year at about seven. The World Health Organization estimates about 2,900 cases annually worldwide.

So, should you start to worry that you’re going to pick up the plague the next time you go camping? Probably not. But should you experience a high fever, headache, chills and swollen, tender lymph nodes, see a doctor right away, just in case.

Originally published September 2012 at


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