How worried should you be about New Mexico’s bubonic plague?

Typical attire worn by physicians treating the Black Death in the Middle Ages.

Just in time for your summer camping trip, a New Mexico news station is warning residents that two dogs in a neighborhood east of Albuquerque have come down with bubonic plague.  The report comes just weeks after the Sacramento Bee reported that the plague has also resurfaced in El Dorado County, just south of Lake Tahoe.  The bacterial infection, carried by fleas and rodents, is considered zooinotic, meaning that it can be transmitted directly from animals to humans.  Potentially serious symptoms include painful swollen lymph glands, intense vomiting, and seizures.

Despite the scary sounding name, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics and the prospect of a widespread outbreak is fairly low, unlike, say, 2012’s hantavirus scare.  We’ve come a long way from the bad old days. Still, it’s kind of striking that this particular form of plague has never truly vanished, even after its most famous occurrence, the “Black Death” of 1348-53 that wiped out more than half of Europe’s population (and provided the backdrop for Ingmar Bergman’s classic film The Seventh Seal).  It got me curious about other bubonic outbreaks throughout history, and so herewith, a few other notable instances, ranked on a scale of 1 to 5 Max von Sydows:

542-740 A.D.: Likely the genetic forebear of the Black Death, this Constantinople-based “Plague of Justinian” killed an estimated 40% of the city’s inhabitants and  “shaped the end of antiquity” by weakening the Byzantine Empire at a crucial moment, preventing it from recapturing Rome.


1854: The “Third Pandemic” begins in rural China, killing some 80,000 people there before leaping to Hong Kong.  Aided by robust global shipping, it spreads throughout the world (including, briefly, San Francisco in 1900) with the aid of global shipping.  British-controlled India is hit hardest by far, documenting an estimated 12.5 million cases, most of which were fatal.  The pandemic dies down thanks to some well-timed vaccination breakthroughs, but remains endemic in many regions for decades.

Severity: Untitled-12

1899: Hawaii (then a republic, not a U.S. state) is forced to burn down several historic buildings and quarantine more than 7,000 residents in order to contain a contagion that begins in Oahu’s Chinatown neighborhood.

Severity: 2

1994: An outbreak in Lima, Peru kills 35 and infects more than 1,100 before being halted.  Fears are triggered again in 2010 when a 14-year-old boy dies of plague in a northern coastal province.

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2010: A Chinese construction worker dies after cooking and eating an infected marmot, but the plague does not spread further.

Severity: 1

2012: A 7-year-old girl is infected and hospitalized after exposure to a dead squirrel while camping in southwest Colorado.  Though surely scary for the girl’s family, this case turned out to be a one-off.

Severity: 1

Pandemics and life-threatening illnesses should never be trivialized, of course, lest we forget that those casualty statistics represent actual human lives.  But for better or worse, humanity has had several centuries of practice dealing with bubonic plague and that’s why (for the moment, at least) the New Mexico cases can be viewed as an intriguing curiosity rather than an existential threat to the Southwest.

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