Bubonic Plague Suspected in NYC

New Mexico Tourists Likely Caught Disease at Home

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Nov. 7, 2002 -- Two tourists from New Mexico have been hospitalized in New York with what appears to be the first cases of bubonic plague reported in the city in at least a century. Officials say the husband and wife likely contracted the disease at their home in New Mexico and then developed symptoms while vacationing in New York.

The disease became known as the "black death" after killing 25 million people in Europe in the 14th century, but officials stress that these isolated cases pose no major public health threat. They say this form of the disease is not spread from person to person, except in rare cases where it can be spread through direct contact with an open wound of an infected person.

The 53-year-old male resident of Santa Fe and his 47-year-old wife arrived in New York on Nov. 1 and went to the hospital after two days of flu-like symptoms, including a high fever and swollen lymph nodes. Laboratory results on the couple are pending, but medical personnel who treated them say all signs point to bubonic plague as the likely diagnosis.

The unidentified man is currently hospitalized in critical condition, and his wife is listed in stable condition.

Symptoms of the plague usually develop between two and seven days after exposure, and officials say all evidence suggests that the pair became infected at home. New Mexico is one of the few regions in North America where the plague occurs with some regularity; fleas and a rat on the couple's property tested positive for the plague earlier this year.

After news of the cases spread in New York last night, the city's health commissioner, Thomas R. Frieden, MD, called a news conference and said there is no cause for alarm.

Frieden says the department is confident that the exposure occurred in New Mexico, and there is no risk to New Yorkers from the individuals who are being evaluated for plague.

Although the plague brings to mind the tremendous death and devastation it wrought in Europe centuries ago, experts say the disease is now easily treated with antibiotics if caught quickly.

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Along with anthrax and smallpox, plague is now on a short list of potential agents that government officials say could be used in a bioterrorist attack. But officials say there is no evidence to suggest that foul play was involved in this case.

According to the CDC, the plague occurs naturally in about 10 to 15 people in the U.S. and 1,000 to 3,000 people globally each year. Nearly half of the plague cases reported each year in the U.S. are from New Mexico, and an investigation of the couple's home is currently under way by the New Mexico Department of Health and the CDC.

Bubonic plague is a bacterial disease that is spread from rodents to humans through the bites of infected fleas. In rare cases, a more serious form of the disease known as pneumonic plague occurs when the plague bacteria is inhaled after direct contact with infected animals.

Symptoms of the plague in humans include fever; painful swollen lymph glands in the groin, armpit, or neck areas; chills; and sometimes headache, vomiting, and diarrhea. Most people with the plague can be successfully treated with a 10-day course of antibiotics, especially if the disease is treated promptly, but about 10% of patients who become ill from plague die. -->

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