The New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) has reported today the first case of human plague of the year in the state and in the United States in a man from Torrance County.
Confirmatory testing is being conducted at the NMDOH’s Scientific Laboratory Division. An environmental investigation will take place at the man’s home to look for ongoing risk to others in the surrounding area.
“An epidemiologic investigation and an environmental investigation around the home of the plague case are being conducted by NMDOH staff to look for ongoing risk and to ensure the safety of the immediate family and neighbors,” said Department of Health Secretary Retta Ward, MPH. “Staff will go door to door to neighbors near the case to inform them about plague found in the area and educate them on reducing their risk. Health care providers and others close to the patient who have been determined to have been exposed are taking preventive antibiotic therapy.”
Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis. It is found in animals throughout the world, most commonly rats but other rodents like ground squirrels, prairie dogs, chipmunks, rabbits and voles. Fleas typically serve as the vector of plague. Human cases have been linked to the domestic cats and dogs that brought infected fleas into the house.
People can also get infected through direct contact with an infected animal, through inhalation and in the case of pneumonic plague, person to person.
Yersinia pestis is treatable with antibiotics if started early enough.
There are three forms of human plague; bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic.
Bubonic plague: This is the most common form. In this form, the bacteria enter the body through the bite of an infected flea or rodent. Here the bacteria infect the lymphatic system. After a few days to week, the person will experience fever, chills, weakness, and swollen lymph glands. These are called buboes.
In the U.S., bubonic plague is sporadic, primarily in the West. Typically, there are around 10 cases annually in this country.
Untreated bubonic plague is fatal about half the time. For more infectious disease news and information, visit and “like” the Infectious Disease News Facebook page.
Septicemic plague: This form is also contracted from a flea or rodent bite. Sometimes it appears subsequent to untreated bubonic or pneumonic plague. It involves bloodstream dissemination to all areas of the body. Buboes do not occur. Symptoms are endotoxic shock and disseminated intravascular coagulation. Untreated septicemic plague is nearly always fatal.
Pneumonic plague: Probably the most serious form of plague and it’s when the bacteria infect the lungs and cause pneumonia. It is contracted when the bacteria is inhaled (primary) or develops when bubonic or septicemic plague spreads to the lungs.
Pneumonic plague is contagious and can be transmitted person to person. It is highly communicable under appropriate climate conditions, overcrowding and cool temperatures. Untreated pneumonic plague is frequently fatal.
“Plague cases have occurred every month of the year in New Mexico, but most cases usually occur in the summer months,” said Dr. Paul Ettestad, public health veterinarian for the Department of Health. “It is especially important now that it is warming up to take precautions to avoid rodents and their fleas which can expose you to plague. Pets that are allowed to roam and hunt can bring infected fleas from dead rodents back into the home, putting you and your children at risk.”
In New Mexico, there were 4 human plague cases in 2013 with one fatality, one human plague case in 2012, two human cases of plague in 2011, no cases in 2010, and six human cases of plague in 2009, one of them fatal.