According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States sees an average of 7 reported human plague cases each year. This year that number has already reached 12, including 4 deaths, making it the second highest year on record for plague cases.

The most recent case came out of Utah when an elderly man died after most likely contracting the disease from a flea or a dead animal. An investigation into his death is ongoing as it is the first case in the state since 2009 and the man did not travel to an area where plague is common.

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The news comes days after it was reported that a second tourist to Yosemite National Park in California was diagnosed with plague. The disease also claimed the lives of two Colorado residents: one adult died in early August and a 16-year-old boy died in June.  Two other Colorado residents contracted the disease and recovered after treatment. The other affected states include Arizona, Georgia, New Mexico, and Oregon.

Although the United States is experiencing a higher-than-normal plague rate in 2015, experts are predicting that the frequency of cases will dwindle as the weather gets colder and people spend less time outdoors.

Plague is infamous in history. One of the worst pandemics is widely known as the “Black Death” or the Great Plague and wiped out entire towns in Europe during the 14th, killing more than 20 million people, which represented almost one-third of the continent’s population. Some stories claim that on occasion there were not enough survivors to bury the dead. Those who fell ill with the disease would develop a fever, be unable to keep food down, and become delirious from pain. Black boils that oozed blood and puss would form on the body, giving the illness its name, the “Black Death.” The disease was so virulent that perfectly healthy people would go to bed at night and be dead by morning.

(Picture Source and Caption:

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some doctors wore a beak-like mask and a long gown for protection against plague. The masks were designed to protect them against miasmatic bad air and were filled with perfume. The gown was made of heavy fabric or leather and was usually waxed. A wooden cane was used to help examine patients without touching them.)

Today, however, physicians understand the condition much better than they did in the 14th century. Plague is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, and the most common way to catch plague is by being bitten by a flea that is infected with the bacteria. People can also become infected via direct contact with infected tissues or fluids while handling an animal that is sick with or has died from plague.

Symptoms vary depending on the type of plague a person contracts, but a high fever is consistent in all cases, as are flu-like symptoms. Those with pneumonic plague can develop a bloody cough, and those with bubonic plague usually experience painful, swollen lymph nodes. If left untreated, plague has a death rate of 50% or higher.

Modern medicine offers different drugs to treat plague. The US Food and Drug Administration approved levofloxacin in 2012 to join other antibacterial drugs including streptomycin, doxycycline, and tetracycline. According to the CDC, a vaccine for the disease is also being developed.


  1. Black death. History website. Accessed September 1, 2015.
  2. Bowerman M. Utah man dies of plague in fourth fatal U.S. case this year. USA Today website. Published August 28, 2015. Accessed September 1, 2015.
  3. Feeney N. Second tourist diagnosed with plague after visiting Yosemite. Time Magazine website. August 19, 2015. Published August 19, 2015. Accessed September 1, 2015.
  4. Miller K. As another person dies of the plague, a look at what’s behind the increase in cases. Yahoo News website. Published August 28, 2015. Accessed September 1, 2015.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plague. Updated August 18, 2015. Accessed September 1, 2015.