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.
I was confident I knew a few things about the bubonic plague: It was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which was transmitted to humans by fleas hitching a ride on the back of traveling rats. It spread rapidly and devastated populations around the globe, and because cats, a natural predator of scurrying rodents, had been killed, rats proliferated along with their deadly, infectious cargo. However, until I read a recent PLoS ONE article, I did not realize there was still debate about whether Yersinia pestis was the infectious agent for Black Death, the disease that ravaged 14th century Europe and killed one third of its population. Continue reading