Plague has come to Yosemite


It is generally believed that what we knew as the Black Death was actually three forms of plague: bubonic, pneumonic and septacemic, All hail from the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, the difference being the location of the infection: the lymphatic system, the respiratory system or the bloodstream, respectively. Plague has come to Yosemite National Park for the first time since 1959.

The latest victim, a woman from Georgia, had been released from hospital days before her illness was announced by the Georgia Department of Public Health. She had been one of the four million people to visit the park every year and sought treatment after seeing a warning from the Department. She was a “presumptive positive case” and was reported to be faring “very well.” Two dead golden-mantled ground squirrels were found to have been infected.

The woman had visited the park earlier in August 2015. It was the second case this summer. It was true that plague has come to Yosemite in July when a girl from Los Angeles County who had camped at the Crane Flat Campground fell ill with all three variants but recovered. That campground and the Toulomne Meadows Campground, where the woman had stayed, were closed and doused with the insecticide, deltamethrin, as a precaution. Health officials declared that the risk to humans was “low.”

When plague has come, the origin is usually fleas that bite people or contact with contaminated tissue or fluids, perhaps from an animal carcass. It is possible but uncommon for an infected party to spread pneumonic plague by coughing. Rodents, cats and dogs can also be carriers, and officials urge that people not touch rodents and report dead ones. Infected animals are often found, but not many humans.

To avoid plague, you shouldn’t touch rodents and should avoid their burrows; wear long trousers to prevent flea bites; and keep wild rodents out of homes and away from pets. Insect repellent can be applied to skin and clothing.

If plague has come, symptoms include fever, headache and swollen lymph nodes two to seven days after infection. Back in the day, at least half of sufferers died – 30 percent of the European population expired in this fashion in the 1300s, but now it can be treated with antibiotics. It has struck people from infancy to the age of 96, but half of cases are in people aged between 12 and 45. A woman and a 16-year-old boy in Colorado died of plague earlier this year. There are an average of seven cases a year in the United States, 80 percent of them bubonic.

According to John D Clements, professor of molecular pathogenesis and immunlogy at the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, it would be “possible but difficult to effectively weaponise Y. pestis.” The bacterium would be aerosolised, which the CDC admits to be feasible given “advanced knowledge and technology.” Considering that sickness occurs up to a week after infection, people with the disease could travel large distances.

About the Author Timothy Chilman

Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”

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