Thursday, June 4, 2009

Plague: It Isn't a Thing of the Past

The Associated Press is reporting the season's first bubonic plague death in New Mexico:

New Mexico boy dies of plague, sister recovering

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico health officials say an 8-year-old boy has died after contracting bubonic plague and his 10-year-old sister, who also contracted the illness, is hospitalized and recovering.

The state Health Department announced the boy's death Thursday, saying the siblings' cases are the first human plague cases in the nation so far this year.

Health officials are conducting an environmental investigation at the family's Santa Fe County residence to determine if there is any ongoing risk to people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says an average of 10 to 15 persons contract the plague each year in the United States. Modern antibiotics are an effective treatment.

Most people think that plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, is a thing of medieval times and faraway places. It takes a sad story like this to remind us that we live with the very real threat of plague in the American southwest every day.

The plague bacteria came to North America sometime after Columbus, courtesy of ship rats. From there it made its way into wildlife, particularly the ground squirrel, which is our local source of endemic plague in Southern California. Interestingly, the common "roof rat" of Los Angeles is the very same rat that spread plague throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, which should give one pause.

Plague is a bacterial disease occasionally infecting cats and humans, transmitted by fleas, which means we have two ways of fighting it. First and foremost is aggressive flea control, which should be used on all cats that go outdoors at all, whether or not they are allowed to wander at large, and regardless of how much time they spend outside. It only takes one flea bite, and you have no idea who that flea bit recently that might have given it plague. Fortunately, plague is treatable with antibiotics, but that assumes your physician (or veterinarian) has figured out that you (or your cat)have plague in the first place, and that's a big assumption since it's not common in people or cats at the moment.

I recommend monthly use of Advantage or Frontline (state-of-the-art OTC flea control products), or Advantage Multi (prescription multi-parasite control). We carry Advantage and Advantage Multi but not Frontline. If you wish to purchase OTC Advantage, you need to know your cat's weight because the cutoff between product sizes is 9 lb, which is average so guessing might not work. Advantage Multi is effective against ear mites, heartworm, roundworms, and hookworms, in addition to fleas. But you need to bring your cat in for an exam and weigh-in unless we have seen it recently because it is prescription only.

I guess I might sound like a corporate shill at this point, but I thought this was a great opportunity to point out what terrible hazards lie in wait for the unsuspecting, and how easy it is at times to decrease those hazards to nearly zero. We veterinarians are at higher risk of plague than average people due to the risk of workplace exposure, so we rely in large part on our clients to be responsible pet owners and keep fleas at bay. Los Angeles lost a veterinarian to plague about 25 years ago, and that is one death too many.