Bubonic Plague in the Modern World

Map of Kyrgyzstan. By Kingvinvin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Recent reports from central Asia show that Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes bubonic plague, is alive and well. Usually when I am writing about Y. pestis, I am describing research that shows the bacteria was the causative agent of ancient plagues. And yet, the bubonic plague has not been eradicated from our planet and thus, will rear its ugly, diseased head. In this case, there is news from Kyrgyzstan that an adolescent male shepherd died from bubonic plague, the first diagnosis in 30 years for Kyrgyzstan. News reports offer different explanations as to how the teenager contracted the disease. Either he ate a marmot infected with Y. pestis or was bitten by fleas that harbored Y. pestis and subsequently became infected himself. However, this diagnosis was made postmortem, and at least three others who came into contact with the boy have fevers and swollen lymph nodes, symptoms of infection with the plague. Additional people including medical staff have been isolated and monitored to ensure that if anyone else is infected, the disease does not spread further.

While treatment with antibiotics can successfully cure modern cases of the plague if given within 24 hours after symptoms appear, this news from Asia reminds us that there is a reservoir of the bacteria, and it will happily move from flea (or rodent) to human if given an opportunity. It is unlikely we will experience the devastation of the Plague of Justinian or the Black Death with the availability of antibiotics and the fact this occurred in an isolated rural area, but the news from Kyrgyzstan demonstrates Y. pestis is still infecting humans and causing death. And maybe for those living in areas where Y. pestis is endemic, reconsider whether approaching or eating cute rodents is a good idea.

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Sara Klink

Scientific Communication Specialist at Promega Corporation
Sara is a native Wisconsinite who grew up on a fifth-generation dairy farm and decided she wanted to be a scientist at age 12. She was educated at the University of Wisconsin—Parkside, where she earned a B.S. in Biology and a Master’s degree in Molecular Biology before earning her second Master’s degree in Oncology at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. She has worked for Promega Corporation for more than 10 years, first as a Technical Services Scientist, currently as a Scientific Communication Specialist. Sara is camera shy but may succumb to peer pressure and post an image.

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