By now, you've probably heard that fleas in two Arizona counties have tested positive for the plague. Yes, you read that right: What we thought was an ancient and defunct disease has made (yet another) modern-day appearance. But, just because a few fleas are stuck with the plague doesn't mean you need to run out and grab your plague mask just yet.
Believe it or not, it's pretty common, even routine, for Arizonan fleas to test positive for the plague, Nicole Capone, M.A., public information officer for Arizona Department of Health Services, tells Refinery29. Back in 2015, public health officials in the state confirmed that fleas were, indeed, carriers for the disease and had even infected the local prairie dog population. Luckily, that means that areas where these fleas have been found before are now monitored on a yearly basis.
Capone says that, as long as you steer clear of dead animals, and practice flea prevention with yourself and your pets, you should fine. "Only five plague cases in people have been reported in Arizona since 2000," she adds. In the last few decades nationwide, there have been between one and 17 cases of the plague each year. So, even if you happen to be in Arizona, your odds of ending up with the plague are quite low.
Of course, with a name like "the plague," this condition has a reputation that no amount of reassuring statistics can wipe away. According to Norman Beatty, MD, infectious disease fellow at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, this is thanks to the Black Death, the plague epidemic that decimated European populations in the 14th century, eventually claiming the lives of one third of the continent's population.
The plague can take one of three forms: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. Dr. Beatty says bubonic is the most common, with symptoms including fever, chills, and swollen lymph nodes, or "buboes." These cases occur two to six days after being bitten by an infected flea. Meanwhile, septicemic plague occurs when the plague-causing bacteria Yersinia pestis enters the bloodstream, and pneumonic plague (the rarest form) is contracted by inhaling the bacteria into the lungs.
Regardless of the form, in this day and age, if you seek treatment as soon as you notice symptoms, you'll probably have what Dr. Beatty calls a "promising outcome." But, just to be on the safe side, heed the Navajo County health department's warning and try to avoid any infected areas, anyway.