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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Plague

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Does plague occur naturally?
Yes. The World Health Organization reports 1,000 to 3,000 cases of plague worldwide every year. An average of five to 15 cases occur each year in the western United States. These cases are usually scattered and occur in rural to semi-rural areas. Most cases are of the bubonic form of the disease. Naturally occurring pneumonic plague is uncommon, although small outbreaks do occur. Both types of plague are readily controlled by standard public health response measures.

Can a person exposed to pneumonic plague avoid becoming sick?
Yes. People who have had close contact with an infected person can greatly reduce the chance of becoming sick if they begin treatment within seven days of their exposure. Treatment consists of taking antibiotics for at least seven days.

How quickly would someone get sick if exposed to plague bacteria through the air?
Someone exposed to Yersinia pestis through the air -- either from an intentional aerosol release or from close and direct exposure to someone with plague pneumonia -- would become ill within one to six days.

Can pneumonic plague be treated?
Yes. To prevent a high risk of death, antibiotics should be given within 24 hours of the first symptoms. Several types of antibiotics are effective for curing the disease and for preventing it. Available oral medications are a tetracycline (such as doxycycline) or a fluoroquinolone (such as ciprofloxacin). For injection or intravenous use, streptomycin or gentamicin antibiotics are used. Early in the response to a bioterrorism attack, these drugs would be tested to determine which is most effective against the particular weapon that was used.

Would enough medication be available in the event of a bioterrorism attack involving pneumonic plague?
National and state public health officials have large supplies of drugs needed in the event of a bioterrorism attack. These supplies can be sent anywhere in the United States within 12 hours.

What should someone do if they suspect they or others have been exposed to plague?
Get immediate medical attention: To prevent illness, a person who has been exposed to pneumonic plague must receive antibiotic treatment without delay. If an exposed person becomes ill, antibiotics must be administered within 24 hours of their first symptoms to reduce the risk of death. Notify authorities: Immediately notify local or state health departments so they can begin to investigate and control the problem right away. If bioterrorism is suspected, the health departments will notify the CDC, FBI, and other appropriate authorities.

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