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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Plague

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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.

How can someone reduce the risk of getting pneumonic plague from another person or giving it to someone else?
People having direct and close contact with someone with pneumonic plague should wear tightly fitting disposable surgical masks. Patients with the disease should be isolated and medically supervised for at least the first 48 hours of antibiotic treatment. People who have been exposed to a contagious person can be protected from developing plague by receiving prompt antibiotic treatment.

How is plague diagnosed?
The first step is evaluation by a health worker. If the health worker suspects pneumonic plague, samples of the patient's blood, sputum, or lymph node aspirate are sent to a laboratory for testing. Once the laboratory receives the sample, preliminary results can be ready in less than two hours. Confirmation will take longer, usually 24 to 48 hours.

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