3 hospitalized for plague in New Mexico

The New Mexico Department of Health on Monday confirmed two new cases of plague among residents, increasing the statewide human plague case total to three so far this year. All three cases occurred in Santa Fe County and required hospitalization. None of the infected individuals have died.

Plague is an illness caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria and is typically spread from rodents to humans via the bites of infected fleas. Rodents in large swaths of the Western U.S. are known to carry plague. In 2016, all four U.S. plague cases were located in New Mexico.

Dr. Paul Ettestad, public health veterinarian for the state health department, told The New York Times there are environmental factors that facilitate the spread of plague in New Mexico. The veterinarian said the diversity of rodents and fleas supported by the vegetation in the area are primary reasons for plague's sustained presence in the state.

"A lot of people have rock squirrels in their yard, and when they die, their fleas are very good at biting people," Dr. Ettestad told the Times. "We have had a number of people who got plague after they were bitten by a flea that their dog or cat brought in the house."

Y. pestis bacteria can cause three types of plague: bubonic, septicemic and pneumonic. Symptoms of all three illnesses include fever and weakness. Bubonic plague causes swelling of the lymph nodes, septicemic plague can cause skin and other tissues to turn black and die, and pneumonic plague can result in respiratory failure and shock. Pneumonic plague is the most lethal with a 90 percent fatality rate.

Paul Rhein, communications director with the NMDH, informed Becker's two of the plague cases confirmed in New Mexico were bubonic and one was pneumonic.

Plague is treatable with antibiotics when caught early.

To learn more about plague, click here.

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