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Should we be concerned about bubonic plague?

Bubonic Plague
Bubonic Plague
Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

With news yesterday about the Chinese city of Yumen being locked down due to a case of bubonic plague, many in the United States are wondering if we could have an outbreak, too. However, the incident in Yumen was the result of one man dying from the plague, so it’s hardly a large outbreak.

The bubonic plague has long been a thorn in the side of humanity, killing hundreds of millions of people during the Middle Ages but with modern hygiene and medicine, it hasn’t been much of a factor in the last century and a half.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were less than a thousand cases of the Black Death in the United States between the time is was introduced here, around 1900, and 2010. The CDC doesn’t have reliable numbers for death rates in plague cases, but the World Health Organization estimates it at around 10 percent at the most.

In other words, around 100 people have died in the country of the disease in over a century. Putting that in perspective, more people than that are struck and killed by lightning every two years in the US.

Bubonic plague is usually carried by fleas on rodents such as prairie dogs and marmots. Good hygiene and avoidance of such creatures can help minimize your risk of exposure. If you live in a state east of the Rocky Mountains you have little to worry about, as only one case has been confirmed in those parts of the country. There are vaccines available as well, but their effectiveness has not been heavily studied.

The last major death toll due to the Black Death happened in China during the latter part of the 19th century and it claimed some 10 million lives which makes China’s caution in this matter understandable. Smaller outbreaks occur a little more frequently in undeveloped and developing countries, like those in Central Africa.

On the scale of things to be worried about here in the United States, however, it ranks somewhere below drowning in a flood and somewhere above a meteor striking you in the head.