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Don't Panic About the Plague

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If reports of measles and whooping cough making a reappearance aren't alarming enough, the news that three people in New Mexico have contracted plague this year might have you on edge. But these aren't the only recent cases of plague in the state—the disease appeared in both 2016 and 2015, causing one death—or even in the U.S.

In 2015, a child contracted the plague in Yosemite National Park, and so did a tourist from Georgia; park officials closed a campground where they discovered two dead squirrels infected with the disease. That same year in Colorado, a pitbull infected four humans with pneumonic plague before being put down, and two other Colorado residents died from plague, including a 16-year-old boy.

It all seems very scary, but don't go sealing yourself in protective gear yet. There's less to fear about plague than you may think. While the public is prone to panic that a medieval illness, which wiped out a quarter of Europe in the Middle Ages during the Black Death, has suddenly arisen from obscurity, the truth is: Plague never left.

Though we haven't seen a widespread epidemic of plague since the early 20th century, thanks to advances in sanitation and medicine, and there hasn't been a human-to-human case of transmission in America since 1924, an average of seven new cases are reported every year in the U.S. From 2010 to 2015, there were 3248 cases, including 584 deaths, reported worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Yersinia pestis, the flea-borne bacteria that's most often responsible for plague, infects rodents; humans are “incidental hosts,” who can acquire the infection if bitten by an infected flea or rodent. Compared to the 14th century, when the Black Death spread wildly, or the late 19th century, when 10 million people died of the disease after it traveled from Hong Kong to port cities worldwide, most people today live in more sanitary conditions and have less frequent contact with the rodents most likely to carry the infected fleas. Today, 95 percent of plague cases originate in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar.

The most common of the three strains of plague is the notorious bubonic plague, which causes painful swollen lymph nodes (also called buboes) and was responsible for Europe's Black Death—so named because internal hemorrhages caused by the infection make the skin appear black. But the pitbull that infected four Colorado residents carried the rarer respiratory strain of pneumonic plague, which is contagious when the infected person coughs up infected particulates. There is also septicemic plague, the most lethal form, which infects the blood, and most often occurs when plague virus has gone undetected and is allowed to spread.

In the U.S., you're generally only at risk of contracting plague in late spring to early fall if you've been in a rural or semi-rural area of the West, especially New Mexico, Arizona, or Colorado, and have had contact with fleas or rodents including ground squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs, or rats. And even then, the risk is low.

Only the pneumatic version of plague is contagious from human to human (though untreated bubonic plague can become pneumonic), but you have to be coughed upon, or receive fluid from an infected person upon an open wound or directly into your mouth or nose.

Plague symptoms mimic any flu—fever, chills, headache, difficulty breathing or coughing—but people have been known to cough up blood with the pneumonic variety. If you've been in a rural area, or camping, and come down with these symptoms two to three days later, it's best to go to a hospital.

Now for some good news: While untreated plague is quite deadly, people with plague who are treated with antibiotics within 24 hours of infection have strong recovery rates.

So while it's good to be aware and take precautions, the chances of another plague pandemic remain slim.

This story was originally published in 2015 and has been updated. 

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Live Smarter
Not Sure About Your Tap Water? Here's How to Test for Contaminants
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In the wake of Flint, Michigan's water crisis, you may have begun to wonder: Is my tap water safe? How would I know? To put your mind at ease—or just to satisfy your scientific curiosity—you can find out exactly what's in your municipal water pretty easily, as Popular Science reports. Depending on where you live, it might even be free.

A new water quality test called Tap Score, launched on Kickstarter in June 2017, helps you test for the most common household water contaminants for $120 per kit. You just need to take a few samples, mail them to the lab, and you'll get the results back in 10 days, telling you about lead levels, copper and cadmium content, arsenic, and other common hazardous materials that can make their way into water via pipes or wells. If you're mostly worried about lead, you can get a $40 test that only tells you about the lead and copper content of your water.

In New York State, a free lead-testing program will send you a test kit on request that allows you to send off samples of your water to a state-certified lab for processing, no purchase required. A few weeks later, you'll get a letter with the results, telling you what kind of lead levels were found in your water. This option is great if you live in New York, but if your state doesn't offer free testing (or only offers it to specific locations, like schools), there are other budget-friendly ways to test, too.

While mailing samples of your water off to a certified lab is the most accurate way to test your water, you can do it entirely at home with inexpensive strip tests that will only set you back $10 to $15. These tests aren't as sensitive as lab versions, and they don't test for as many contaminants, but they can tell you roughly whether you should be concerned about high levels of toxic metals like lead. The strip tests will only give you positive or negative readings, though, whereas the EPA and other official agencies test for the concentration of contaminants (the parts-per-billion) to determine the safety of a water source. If you're truly concerned with what's in your water, you should probably stick to sending your samples off to a professional, since you'll get a more detailed report of the results from a lab than from a colored strip.

In the future, there will likely be an even quicker way to test for lead and other metals—one that hooks up to your smartphone. Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old from Colorado, won the 2017 Young Scientist Challenge by inventing Tethys, a faster lead-testing device than what's currently on the market. With Tethys, instead of waiting for a lab, you can get results instantly. It's not commercially available yet, though, so for now, we'll have to stick with mail-away options.

[h/t Popular Science]

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