Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Plague
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
Can a person exposed to pneumonic plague avoid becoming
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
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