The Plague Is Back: Do You Need This Weird Mask?

Image: Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.
Last month, a child from Los Angeles contracted the plague while visiting Yosemite National Park. Yeah, that plague. Although it might seem like a thing of the (distant) past, this is actually the third case this week in the U.S. So, while we may not have to worry about the plague as much as previous centuries of humans did, it is by no means forgotten.

During the repeated bouts of plague that, um, plagued Europe from the 14th through the 17th centuries, then-current thinking held that diseases were caused by "corrupt" air. So, beginning in the 1600s, plague doctors would do as much as possible to avoid exposure.

What they lacked in antibiotics and medical training they made up for in creativity and creepiness: Their beak-shaped masks were filled with pungent herbs, supposedly to ward off the disease and the resulting stench. These doctors' canes were used to give instructions and deal with patients without getting too close. The hat, goggles, and heavy coat that finished their look also meant to protect from exposure to the disease.

As you can probably guess — from the staggering death toll, if nothing else — these measures didn't do too much. We now know that the plague is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria and spreads quickly via infected rodents, fleas, and sometimes people. Although it may be scary, in most cases the plague is still no match for our current antibiotics. The earlier an infected person seeks treatment, the better, but it's not always obvious that what people are feeling is plague. The bubonic version causes lymph glands to swell, for instance, which is a much clearer sign than the coughing, fever, and weakness combo that's present in pneumonic plague.

There are around seven or eight plague cases annually in the U.S., most often in southwestern states where rodents and fleas are still responsible for most of the transmission. While it's obviously a serious, potentially life-threatening illness, this means it's still super rare.

So no, you really don't need to wear a crazy beak mask. Nor do you need to arm yourself with strong-smelling pomanders or pull a Pope Clement VI and surround yourself with fire — especially if you haven't checked with your landlord first.

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