What you need to know about Arizona fleas carrying the plague

The news of fleas in two Arizona counties testing positive for the plague may have sent you into a slight panic. When you consider that tens of millions of people died during three major plague pandemics, it is reasonable to feel a bit nervous.

But is it worth worrying about?

Learn the need-to-know basics about this recent discovery and how to protect yourself against this disease.

What is The Plague?

An infectious disease caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, plague can affect rodents and some other animals as well as humans. There are three forms of plague —bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic– each with unique symptoms.

Bubonic plague causes flu-like symptoms along with one or more painful, swollen lymph nodes. Along with flu-like symptoms, septicemic plague can cause bleeding into the skin and other organs as well as tissue that turns black and dies. Pneumonic plague can cause serious respiratory ailments, such as pneumonia.

How is it Transmitted?

Fleas bite rodents infected with Yersinia pestis. Then they go on to bite humans or other mammals. Human-to-human transmission can occur when an infected person coughs and the droplets are inhaled by someone else.

Someone who contracts bubonic plague will become ill within two to six days, although a person exposed to Yersinia pestis through the air could become ill within one to three days.

rats outside photo
Flickr | Steve_Herring

What are the risks?

Although the risk of developing plague is very low, some factors may increase the risk, such as traveling to a plague-endemic area. Activities and occupations that increase contact with potentially infected animals, such as camping in certain areas or working as a veterinarian, can increase risk as well.

Left untreated, bubonic plague bacteria can enter the bloodstream. The bacteria multiply and spread through the body, causing septicemic plague, which can be fatal. It can also progress to a lung infection and cause pneumonic plague. All forms of plague can rapidly cause death if untreated.

How Is It Treated?

If a person has been to a plague-endemic region or has a known flea bite and is presenting symptoms, a doctor can perform a blood or tissue test to diagnose plague.

While it is a serious illness, plague is highly treatable with common antibiotics. Prompt treatment greatly increases the odds for a full recovery. Prior to 1941, the mortality rate of plague in the United States was 66 percent; by 2010, this number decreased to 11 percent.

sick hospital photo
Getty Images | Adam Berry

Where is plague found?

Since the mid-1900s, almost all cases of plague in the United States have occurred in rural areas of Western states. The most significant number of cases have been in primarily New Mexico, Arizona, California and Colorado.

Instances of plague worldwide have been reported in Africa, Asia and South America, with the bulk of these in Africa. Again, a greater number of cases occur in small villages or agricultural areas.

How can you protect yourself and your family?

There is currently no vaccine for plague, although the CDC reports plague vaccines are in development. In the meantime, take steps to lower your risk of plague.

  • Wear repellent when hiking, camping or working outdoors in an area where fleas carrying Yersinia pestis may exist.
  • Apply flea control products to your pets. Avoid letting them sleep with you, as well.
  • Remove debris, animal food and other items that might attract rodents around your home.
  • Avoid handling dead animals if at all possible and wear gloves if you must touch one.
  • Report sick or dead animals to your local animal control department.