How Common Is Bubonic Plague? It’s Been Called A “Re-Emerging Disease”

Catching the plague probably isn't something you spend a lot of time worrying about. But the bubonic plague isn't just something you learn about in history class. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified the plague as a re-emerging disease, and there have reportedly been more than 50,000 cases in the past 20 years, according to CNN. However, the WHO noted in a report that the number of people contracting the plague is likely much higher because not all cases are reported. One such case resulted in the death of a Mongolian couple, who died from the bubonic plague after eating raw marmot, CNN reported.

The deaths resulted in a six-day quarantine of tourists and residents, though the local governor is quoted as saying that no one else is currently at risk for catching the plague, which you might also know as "The Black Death." While it's a pandemic most people have only read about in history books, Medical Xpress reported that at least one person dies of the bubonic plague in Mongolia each year. Most cases are the result of eating raw marmot innards, which some people believe have health benefits. Bustle reported in 2018 that a child in Idaho was being treated for the plague, though it's not known where or how the child contracted the disease.

In 2015, The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report stating that 11 people in six states had contracted the plague. Some of the cases were traced back to Yosemite National Park in California. The CDC said that the plague "circulates among wild rodents and their fleas in rural and semi-rural areas in the western United States."

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According to History.com, The Black Death devastated parts of Europe and Asia in the 1300s, eventually killing 20 million people in Europe alone. "The plague arrived in Europe in October 1347, when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. People gathered on the docks were met with a horrifying surprise: Most sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those still alive were gravely ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and pus," History.com wrote.

The plague is spread through a bacteria called Yersinia pestis. The bacteria can settle in the lungs, travel through the air, and is also transmitted through the bites of infected fleas and rats. People can also contract it after eating infected rodents, which is what happened to the couple in Mongolia. While modern sanitation practices and medical advancements have greatly reduced the risk of being exposed to the plague, the disease has not been totally eradicated.

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It's unlikely that you'll catch the plague — an average of seven cases are reported in the U.S. each year — but there are some things you can do to reduce the risk even more, since there is currently no vaccine. The CDC recommends keeping your home free of rodents, removing brush, rock piles, cluttered firewood, junk, and pet food from your yard. If you do find a dead rodent in your home or yard, you can contact your local health department to learn the protocol for safe removal and disposal of the animal.

If you're worried that rodents can get into your house or apartment — a valid and common concern — you can call a pest control company to inspect your home. If you're venturing out into the wilderness, make sure to wear insect repellent and keep your arms and legs covered. It's also important to treat your pets with a flea preventative.

For those who fear they have been exposed, symptoms of the plague include abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, fever, chills, and weakness. Because these symptoms can also be related to other things, like food poisoning, they don't necessarily mean you have the plague. However, if you also experience bleeding and your blood doesn't clot, have trouble breathing, or you go into shock, seek medical attention ASAP.