Public Health New Mexico
5:59 pm
Wed September 18, 2013

Southwest Plague Cases Help High US Ranking For Bubonic Infections

Between 1900 and 2010, 999 confirmed or probable human plague cases occurred in the United States. More than 80 percent of United States plague cases have been the bubonic form.
Between 1900 and 2010, 999 confirmed or probable human plague cases occurred in the United States. More than 80 percent of United States plague cases have been the bubonic form.
Credit Centers for Disease Control

A new survey ranks the United States 11th in the number of reported plague cases around the world. Of the cases found in the U.S. over the last decade, most infections were acquired in the Southwest.

The survey, published by the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, ranked Congo with the greatest numbers of reported plague patients — about 10,500 — and the in the U.S., a significantly smaller number: 57 cases. What's interesting is most patients acquired plague in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, California and Texas.

"People think about it as the black death and something that occurred in medieval Europe and killed millions and millions of people, which it did," said the New Mexico Department of Health's Paul Ettestad. "But you know, it's been here in the United States since around 1900 when it was brought over on ships from Asia and was able to establish a foothold around San Francisco, then spread throughout the western United States, and particularly in the Four Corners area."

Ettestad said since 1970 about half of all plague cases in the U.S. were reported in New Mexico.

"We think one of the reasons is our Colorado Plateau area and our piñion juniper areas, really support a wide variety of rodents and a wide variety of fleas that seem to be very good vectors for carrying plague," Ettestad said.

About 95 percent of cases worldwide occur in Africa, and Ettestad says it is still a very rare disease, but people should be aware of its existence in the Southwest.