Monday, August 10, 2015

A Public Service Announcement About...THE PLAGUE!

Seriously, do not worry about the plague.

This has been in the news lately, because apparently reporters have the attention span of goldfish and if something happens with less frequency than, say, once a year it becomes an entirely new event that must be breathlessly reported on each time it happens. (And if something happens twice in a year, it's a "trend".) But yes, someone picked up a case of bubonic plague, because that is a real disease that still exists and can be communicated to humans.

But this is not a thing to worry about. I mean, obviously it is if you have it, because it's a serious disease that can be fatal if not treated, but we are not due for a bubonic plague pandemic. Obama does not need to have a plan for the bubonic plague. Because we already have a plan for the bubonic plague, and it's "don't go play with wild rodents". It's worked very well for a long period of time, and I suspect it will continue to work for generations to come.

The reason that you will, occasionally, hear about people getting the plague is because about 150 years ago (give or take), the bubonic plague crossed from Eurasia to the Americas (probably through rats coming into San Franciso, where there was a significant outbreak among the Chinese immigrant population at the time) and got into the wild rodent population. Plague is transmitted via flea bite, and rodents tend to be social animals, so when one of them gets it, they all do. This isn't a big deal if you're a rat or a prairie dog, because it's much less deadly to rodents than it is to humans, but humans that come into close contact with sick rodents can be infected as the fleas jump from the dying animal to the healthy human.

A thousand years ago, this was a pretty big deal, because sanitation and hygiene and proper food storage were all things that hadn't been invented yet. Rats? All over the damn place. Sick and dying rats? You could find them in the gutters, the wells, the barns, the outhouses, your kitchen...and where there were dead rats, there were hungry and desperate fleas to carry the plague to the nearest warm body. And antibiotics? Not even a glimmer in anyone's eye. Hell, they didn't even know how the plague was being transmitted. Being swarmed by a cloud of fleas after handling a dead rat and dying of bubonic plague were just a couple of weird coincidences to medieval peasants.

But these days, all of that is very different. Rodent populations in the American Southwest are too widely scattered, and contact with humans is too infrequent, for the plague to spread far or happen often. Even when the occasional rat or mouse gets close to a human, we have an arsenal of traps, poisons, and other means to keep it from becoming a breeding colony that could infect large numbers of people. The disease is contracted so rarely, and is taken so seriously by medical officials when it happens, that there's almost no chance of an antibiotic-resistant strain popping up. And direct human-to-human transmission of the disease is incredibly rare even by the standards of the six to seven cases a year that crop up; it needs the rats and the fleas to spread to human beings, and modern civilization has taken a lot of care to make sure that we don't see either one very often.

So basically, avoid playing with wild rodents, especially ones that are sick, dying or already dead, and you should be fine. If you find a dead rat, take appropriate precautions when handling its corpse and you should be fine. If you feel sick after handling a dead rat with your bare hands (and why did you do that? Did you not read anything else in this blog post?) then go see a doctor, and you should be fine. If you read an article about the plague and start panicking, re-read this post, possibly while drinking a glass of red wine, and you should be fine. If you're fine already, you should continue to be fine.

This has been a public service announcement about...THE PLAGUE!

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