Imagine a mysterious disease that kills up to half of everyone around you. Imagine living in fear, not knowing how it spreads or who it will strike next.
This terror was a reality for people across Europe in the 1300s when the bubonic plague decimated the population. Today, we know that a bloodborne pathogen causes this disease. This means that even though it’s still around, we can prevent it from infecting people and treat them if they do get sick.
Are you wondering what you should know to stay safe from the plague? Keep reading to find out what the plague really is and how you can protect yourself.
Yersinia Pestis: Bubonic Plague
“The plague” is the most common term for the bubonic plague. This sickness is a bacterial infection caused by Yersinia pestis.
- pestis has a more frightening nickname, though: “The Black Death.” It acquired this moniker during the 14th century when it first swept across Europe. During this plague, Y. pestis killed an estimated one-third to one-half of the population.
Historians estimate that the plague claimed the lives of up to 30 million people.
However, it didn’t stop there. The plague re-emerged at different points in history. The plague continued to ravage Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and emerge in other parts of the world.
Its most recent epidemic was only a hundred years ago. Steamships carried infected rats to the United States, causing a new plague breakout in the early 1920s.
The Plague Today
Today, Y. pestis bacteria still lurk in the Western United States. The plague is rare, with an average of 7 recorded cases per year in the United States.
With the development of modern antibiotics, it’s easy to treat the plague today. However, the disease is still potentially deadly. In fact, there were 4 reported deaths in the United States in 2015.
As low as this number is, we shouldn’t treat the bubonic plague lightly. Unless the sick person gets treated in time, they have a high risk of dying of the plague.
How Does the Bubonic Plague Spread?
The bubonic plague is a bloodborne pathogen. The bacteria must come in contact with your blood to infect you and make you sick.
In the 1300s, the plague arrived in Europe from trading ships. The ships carried rats who had picked up fleas from other parts of the world. Those fleas carried the plague.
When the ships docked in Europe and the rats came ashore, they spread their fleas among busy European cities. The fleas began to jump to humans and bite them. When the fleas fed on human blood, they regurgitated some of the infected blood into the bites, causing infection.
The fleas also transmitted the infection to other European rats, which carried it farther. The chain of infection continued until it wiped out half of Europe’s population.
The plague still requires blood-to-blood contact for transmission. Fleas and animals are still key vectors of infection. Today, you may be at risk of contracting the plague if you live in an at-risk area, have close contact with animals, or engage in high-risk activities.
In the United States, there are two areas where you are most likely to contract bubonic plague. These are the geographical areas where the Y. pestis bacterium still lives after arriving in the United States in the early 1900s. They include:
- The northern region of New Mexico (also encompassing southern Colorado)
- California (also encompassing southern Oregon)
People who live and work in these areas should educate themselves about the symptoms of the plague. They should also get the training they need to protect themselves from exposure to bloodborne pathogens.
Just like the early waves of the plague, animals are still prone to Y. pestis infections through flea bites. Any animal that can contract fleas can carry the plague, including:
- Squirrels and other rodents
- Farm animals
- Zoo animals
You can get the plague from an animal when one of their fleas jumps to you and bites you. You can also become infected by direct contact with an animal, like bites or scratches.
If you live in an at-risk area, your household pet may carry plague-infected fleas into your house. Be sure to treat your pets for fleas often. Working with animals can also put you at risk for a plague infection.
- pestis usually lives on animals in the wild. Whenever you venture into the wilderness you risk coming into contact with infected fleas.
Outdoor activities like hiking and camping can put you at a higher risk of getting the plague. This is especially true if you live in a high-risk area.
If you do spend a lot of time outdoors, wear bug spray to repel fleas. Never touch rodents in the wild. Treat all dead animals as potential sources of infection.
You can also contract the plague through direct contact with others’ blood. Take precautions with needles and dispose of sharp objects safely.
Handling Bodily Fluids
Anytime that you handle bodily fluids, you could be exposed to a bloodborne infection. This risk is most common for health care professionals. However, it happens in many other jobs as well.
For instance, imagine that you are an elementary school teacher. A student trips on the playground and begins bleeding from the nose. Your instinct is to pull out a tissue and help them get cleaned up.
If you don’t take further precautions, you could expose yourself to a bloodborne infection such as the plague.
What if you were prepared before the incident? You could keep a pair of infection-control gloves nearby. That way, when you had to handle bodily fluids, you could do so safely.
This example illustrates the importance of educating and preparing yourself to prevent pathogen transmission.
Bubonic Plague Symptoms
The most well-known symptom of the bubonic plague is enlarged, painful lymph nodes in the armpits and groin (called buboes). The bacteria enter through the flea bite and reproduce in the lymph node closest to the bite. This causes them to swell visibly and turn red or dark.
Other symptoms of the bubonic form of the plague include:
- Vomiting blood
- Muscle cramps
As the disease progresses, the skin of the infected person’s extremities becomes necrotic and gangrenous. This causes extreme pain.
Bubonic plague leads to septiciemic plague. If untreated, it will cause organ failure, shock, and death. In some cases, the plague can kill in about 24 hours.
Treating the Bubonic Plague
As a bacterial infection, the bubonic plague is easy to treat with modern antibiotics. If it’s caught in time, Yersinia pestis treatment is straightforward.
A doctor will prescribe you a course of antibiotics such as:
You can take these antibiotics as a pill or through an IV. Your doctor will test your blood after several weeks of treatment to make sure that the bacteria are gone.
If you think you have been exposed to bubonic plague, you can have a prophylactic course of antibiotics. This involves taking antibiotics for about one week to prevent the plague from taking hold in your system.
Preventing the Plague
We now have effective cures for bubonic plague. However, it’s always better to prevent disease than to treat it.
All healthcare settings, including dental clinics, must adhere to infection control guidelines. Research shows that failure to do so causes an increase in bloodborne pathogen infections.
In every setting, workers should treat bodily fluids as if they are infected by bloodborne pathogens. Workers should also use common infection-control measures. These include washing hands frequently and wearing gloves when applicable.
Finally, every workplace should institute a good infection control plan. This reduces the spread of a bloodborne infection if it does occur. The ultimate responsibility for workers’ safety rests with the employer, so educating and equipping workers is legally the employer’s responsibility.
What is Bloodbourne Pathogens Training?
Bloodbourne pathogens training prepares you to recognize a bloodborne pathogen risk and handle it while staying safe. A bloodborne pathogens certification is for anyone whose work or other activities puts them at risk of encountering blood.
Any job that involves handling bodily fluids — even if it’s as simple as putting a bandaid on a scraped knee — exposes you to the risk of bloodborne pathogens. Whether you’re a doctor, nurse, daycare worker, animal handler, or sanitation worker, bloodborne pathogens training can keep you safe on the job.
Stay Informed and Safe
The plague caused the most devastating pandemic in human history. It’s frightening to realize that it still exists. Thankfully, modern antibiotics keep it under control, so we don’t have to worry about “bubonic plague 2020.”
However, avoiding bloodborne pathogens is safer than treating them when they occur. The bubonic plague is one of many illnesses that you can contract by blood-to-blood contact.
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