Man in New Mexico dies from the PLAGUE in America’s first fatal case in years – experts explain why the region is a hotspot

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  • A man in New Mexico died from the plague this week, health officials announced
  • It is America’s first fatal case of the plague since 2020, the CDC estimates
  • READ MORE: How your pet CAT is a major harborer of deadly diseases

A man in New Mexico became the first American in years to die from the plague last week, health officials announced.

The unnamed patient was from Lincoln County, just south of Albuquerque, but no other details have been released about him – including his age or health status.

The New Mexico Department of Health said it was carrying out track and trace methods to see if anyone else had been infected. 

He is the first person in America to die from the plague – a disease that wiped out  half of Europe’s population in the 14th century – since 2020.

A New Mexico man has become the first to die of the plague in the US this year after contracting Yesinia Pestis bacteria (pictured, in red file) 

The majority of plague cases in the US since 1970 have taken place in the Four Corners area, which includes New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado

The majority of plague cases in the US since 1970 have taken place in the Four Corners area, which includes New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado

It’s unclear how the man caught the disease, though it is typically spread to humans through bites from fleas or rodents, as well as exposure to other dead animals.

The case comes one month after an unidentified resident in Oregon was sickened by the plague, which officials believe they contracted from their cat. 

Once a great killer, the bubonic plague now infects fewer than 10 Americans a year, according to the CDC. However, the disease has come extremely rare thanks to improved hygiene and innovations of modern medicine like antibiotics. 

Most occur in the Four Corners area of the US – New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona – because the area has a high concentration of rodents due to its favorable climate, experts say.

In bubonic plague, the most common type, the infection spreads to immune glands called lymph nodes, causing them to become swollen and painful. These may progress to open sores.

Symptoms usually develop within two to eight days and include fever, headache, chills, and weakness. 

The CDC estimates that 80 percent of plague cases in the US have been bubonic. 

If the infection is not treated properly with antibiotics, it can spread to other areas of the body. 

The CDC estimates that seven cases of the plague are reported every year in the US

The CDC estimates that seven cases of the plague are reported every year in the US

It's unclear how the man in New Mexico contracted plague. In Oregon, a patient came down with the disease from his cat. Cats, both feral and domestic, can carry numerous diseases - some of which can be passed on to humans

It’s unclear how the man in New Mexico contracted plague. In Oregon, a patient came down with the disease from his cat. Cats, both feral and domestic, can carry numerous diseases – some of which can be passed on to humans

Pneumonic plague, for example, occurs when the disease spreads to the lungs. 

Symptoms occur in just one to three days and involve rapidly developing pneumonia, characterized by shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, and bloody or watery mucous. 

Over time, this can lead to respiratory failure.

And septicemic plague is when infection spreads to the blood. 

Patients typically develop fever, chills, extreme weakness, abdominal pain, shock and bleeding into the skin and other organs. Septicemic plague is almost always fatal. 

In the 1300s, bubonic plague spread rapidly across Europe, wiping out 30 to 50 percent of its population in just seven years.

However, it is extremely rare today. There are about seven human plague cases reported each year, according to the CDC.

WHAT ARE THE THREE TYPES OF PLAGUE?

There are two main forms of plague infection both caused by the same bacteria – Yesinia pestis. 

Bubonic plague is the most common form of plague and is spread by the bite of an infected flea. The infection spreads to immune glands called lymph nodes, causing them to become swollen and painful and may progress to open sores. Human-to-human transmission of bubonic plague is rare and it’s usually caught from animals.

If plague infects the lungs – either by the bubonic form progression through the body or by catching the infection from an infected patient or animal’s breath – it is called pneumonic plague

Pneumonic plague is significantly more deadly and can take hold in as little as 24 hours. Human-to-human spread this way is easy and, if the condition’s not diagnosed and treated quickly, it is often fatal.

Symptoms of both forms of infection include pain the limbs and head, fever, vomiting and weakness. Pneumonic plague also causes coughing and coughing up blood. 

Septicaemic plague occurs when the infection spreads to the blood. This is much rarer and can cause the blood to clot around the body – it’s almost always fatal.

Source: World Health Organization 

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Though it can occur at any age, the CDC says that 50 percent of cases are in people ages 12 to 45. 

Additionally, the risk is slightly higher in men, which the agency says could be due to men engaging in more outdoor activities. 

Dr Robert Bollinger, an infectious disease professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, told USA TODAY: ‘It’s not unusual to have an isolated case of bubonic plague.’

‘It’s serious when it happens, but it’s treatable if you catch it early enough.’

Dr Bollinger estimated that 80 percent of plague cases occur in the Four Corners of the US – New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona – because the area has a high concentration of rodents. 

The New Mexico Department of Health estiamtes that 50 percent of the cases come from that state alone. 

Plague was last reported in New Mexico in 2021.

In 2020, four cases – one fatal – were reported in three New Mexico counties: Santa Fe, Torrance and Rio Arriba.

And in 2017, two women and one man contracted the disease. All of them survived. 

According to the New Mexico Department of Health, the rock squirrel flea – Oropsylla montana – most commonly harbors the plague in the state. 

‘Plague occurs in a cyclical nature for reasons not completely understood, but probably related to favorable weather (above average rainfall and moderate temperatures) which leads to increased food abundance for rodents, thus supporting higher rodent populations and an increased risk for disease,’ the agency states. 

Fleas are also better able to survive in these conditions.  

In the Oregon case last month, Dr Richard Fawcett, a health officer for Deschutes County – where the patient resided – said the person’s cat was very sick and displaying symptoms. 

The animal had an oozing abscess and the owner’s infection likely started in a lymph node but had quickly progressed to infect the bloodstream. The patient was given antibiotics and has ‘responded well’ to treatment.  

It was the first case of bubonic plague in Oregon since a 16-year-old contracted the disease in 2015. 

The teenager fell ill after being bitten by an infected flea during a hunting trip near Heppner, Morrow County.

There had been eight cases in the state in the previous 20 years, with none leading to deaths.

In 2012, an Oregon man lost his fingers and toes to the plague. He also contracted the disease from his cat after trying to remove a mouse from his cat’s throat.

To prevent plague, the CDC recommends reducing the risk of rodents settling into your home or workplace. Additionally, wear gloves if handling or skinning potentially infected animals, use repellant if you think you have been exposed to fleas, and keep fleas off of your pets.

Dr Erin Phipps, New Mexico Public State Public Health Veterinarian, said: ‘We extend our deepest sympathy to the family of the Lincoln County man who succumbed to plague.’

‘This tragic incident serves as a clear reminder of the threat posed by this ancient disease and emphasizes the need for heightened community awareness and proactive measures to prevent its spread.’

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