Oregon has had its first case of the plague in around eight years, after being confirmed in a state resident by health officials – and are suspected to have been infected by their pet cat.
The Deschutes County Health Services announced on Wednesday that a local resident had the plague, saying it is likely that their “symptomatic pet cat” infected the individual.
“All close contacts of the resident and their pet have been contacted and provided medication to prevent illness,” said Dr Richard Fawcett, Deschutes County health officer.
Dr Fawcett also said the cat was “very sick” and had a draining abscess, which meant a “fairly substantial” infection, according to NBC.
The human case was identified and treated in the earlier stages of the disease, meaning it posed little risk to the community, the health services said.
By the time the patient had been hospitalised, the infection had progressed to the bloodstream, the outlet reported.
The Independent has contacted the Deschutes County Health Services for more information on this.
However, the patient “responded very well to antibiotic treatment”, according to the doctor.
As the plague progresses, it becomes increasingly more difficult to treat.
No further cases of the plague have been reported during the investigation. Dr Fawcett said, according to NBC, that he would be “very surprised” if they see any other cases.
The most common animals to carry the plague in Central Oregon are squirrels and chipmunks, but mice and other rodents can also carry the disease, the county health services said.
The last case of the plague in Oregon was reported back in 2015, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
News reports from 2015 said that a teenage girl, aged 16 from Crook County, Oregon, contracted the plague.
Authorities at the time said the girl was believed to have gotten the disease from a flea bite during a hunting trip in Morrow County, leading her to fall ill and recover in the intensive care unit.
Non-human, cat-related plague reports were published last year, such as a case in Wyoming, which reported a case in a pet cat, but no human illnesses, and another in Colorado, which also found a cat with the disease.
In a different Colorado county, a case of the plague was also associated with the recent death of one of their residents in 2023.
It is unclear how many cases of the plague there were across the US in 2023, but the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said that there were nine cases reported in 2020, with two deaths.
The total number of plague cases reported between 1970 and 2020 in the US is 496, the CDC said, with an average of seven human cases reported per year.
What is the plague?
The plague is usually associated with the Black Death that killed millions in Europe in the 1300s or the worldwide plague outbreak that started in the 19th century.
While cases are still around today, it is not at the population-devastating level as it was in the past, as modern antibiotics are effective at treating the illness.
The plague spreads to humans or animals through a bite of an infected flea or having contact with an animal sick with the disease. It is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.
In humans, symptoms will appear around two to eight days after exposure.
Symptoms may include a sudden onset of fever, nausea, weakness, chills, muscle aches, and/or visibly swollen lymph nodes called buboes, the county health services said.
While a handful of cases have been reported in the US, plague epidemics have occurred in Africa, Asia and South America, with most human cases since the 1990s having occurred in Africa, the CDC said.
What have Oregon authorities advised?
After the confirmed case, the county health service advised their residents to prevent the spread of plague by avoiding contact with rodents and their fleas, keeping pets on a leash while outside, making sure they are protected with flea control products and staying away from rodents.
They said that pet cats are “highly susceptible” to plague, with the felines also being able to transmit the bacterium to humans.
“If possible, discourage their hunting of rodents,” the health services said. “Consult a veterinarian immediately if your cat becomes sick after being in contact with rodents.”
They also advised to keep wild rodents out of homes, to not camp or rest near animal burrows or where a dead rodent is observed, to refrain from feeding squirrels, chipmunks or other rodents, and to store food and refuse in rodent-proof containers.
To reduce exposure to fleas, people should also wear long pants tucked into boot tops and wear insect repellent on socks and trouser cuffs.