New Mexico man dies of plague: Health officials

Plague is often passed to humans through flea bites or infected animal contacts.

March 12, 2024, 5:46 PM

A New Mexico man has died from plague in the state's first human fatality since 2020, according to health officials.

The man lived in Lincoln County -- located in the southeastern part of the state -- and was hospitalized from the disease before dying, the New Mexico Department of Health said in a press release last week.

No other identifying information about the man was available, including his name, age or race/ethnicity.

Plague is treatable with commonly available antibiotics and the odds of full recovery are higher if a patient seeks medical care early, according to the CDC.

The NMDOH said staff members are reaching out to residents of the area and will be conducting an environmental assessment in the community to determine risk.

The last human plague case in the state was a resident of Torrance County in 2021, according to the health department. In 2020, there were four human cases including one in Santa Fe County, two in Torrance County and the fatal case in Rio Arriba County.

PHOTO: Computer illustration of plague bacteria is seen here in an undated stock photo.
Computer illustration of plague bacteria is seen here in an undated stock photo.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Although plague is often associated with killing millions of Europeans during the Middle Ages, it is not an eradicated disease, State Public Health Veterinarian Dr. Erin Phipps told ABC News.

"This is the same bacteria that caused the Black Death that decimated the European population, and it is indeed still present. It does still circulate in the present day," she said.

Plague is a disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It naturally occurs in the western U.S., particularly in rural and semi-rural areas of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It typically affects wild rodents including wood rats, rock squirrels, ground squirrels, mice, prairie dogs and chipmunks. Humans can contract the disease by being bitten by a rodent flea carrying the bacterium or by coming into direct contact with an animal infected with plague, which may include pets.

Phipps said there are three types of plague: bubonic plague, which is associated with enlarged lymph nodes called buboes; septicemic plague, which occurs when the bacteria enter the bloodstream; and pneumonic plague, which is when the infection enters the lungs.

Other symptoms typically include headache, fever, chills and weakness.

"Bubonic plague has the enlarged lymph nodes but otherwise, the symptoms [of plague] are similar to several other diseases," Phipps said. "And that's what some of the challenge is. Because it's rare, it's not always on people's radar."

She said this is why diagnosis from a trained physician is extremely important to receive treatment.

Before antibiotics, two-thirds of people who contracted plague died of the disease, according to Phipps. Currently, about 10% of people die from plague, she said.

To reduce the risk of plague, the NMDOH recommends cleaning up areas near the home where rodents could live, preventing pets from roaming and hunting, putting away pet food to not attract rodents and keeping hay and wood as far away from the house as possible.

PHOTO: Computer illustration of plague bacteria is seen here in an undated stock photo.
Computer illustration of plague bacteria is seen here in an undated stock photo.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Additionally, have a sick pet examined immediately by a veterinarian and talk to your doctor if you have signs of unexplained illness.

"People don't realize that [plague] is not a disease of the past," Phipps said. "We get cases in the western United States every year. We hope by increasing awareness, we can encourage early diagnosis and agreement."

She added: "It's not something to be overly anxious about, but by ensuring it stays on the radar, it will help … people take measures if they live in wild areas or near wild rodent populations, especially with indoor and outdoor pets."

The news of the New Mexico man's death comes just a month after an Oregon resident contracted plague, likely from their cat, according to health officials in the state.