Don't Panic About the Plague

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Getty Images

If reports of measles and whooping cough making a reappearance aren't alarming enough, the news that three people in New Mexico have contracted plague this year might have you on edge. But these aren't the only recent cases of plague in the state—the disease appeared in both 2016 and 2015, causing one death—or even in the U.S.

In 2015, a child contracted the plague in Yosemite National Park, and so did a tourist from Georgia; park officials closed a campground where they discovered two dead squirrels infected with the disease. That same year in Colorado, a pitbull infected four humans with pneumonic plague before being put down, and two other Colorado residents died from plague, including a 16-year-old boy.

It all seems very scary, but don't go sealing yourself in protective gear yet. There's less to fear about plague than you may think. While the public is prone to panic that a medieval illness, which wiped out a quarter of Europe in the Middle Ages during the Black Death, has suddenly arisen from obscurity, the truth is: Plague never left.

Though we haven't seen a widespread epidemic of plague since the early 20th century, thanks to advances in sanitation and medicine, and there hasn't been a human-to-human case of transmission in America since 1924, an average of seven new cases are reported every year in the U.S. From 2010 to 2015, there were 3248 cases, including 584 deaths, reported worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Yersinia pestis, the flea-borne bacteria that's most often responsible for plague, infects rodents; humans are “incidental hosts,” who can acquire the infection if bitten by an infected flea or rodent. Compared to the 14th century, when the Black Death spread wildly, or the late 19th century, when 10 million people died of the disease after it traveled from Hong Kong to port cities worldwide, most people today live in more sanitary conditions and have less frequent contact with the rodents most likely to carry the infected fleas. Today, 95 percent of plague cases originate in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar.

The most common of the three strains of plague is the notorious bubonic plague, which causes painful swollen lymph nodes (also called buboes) and was responsible for Europe's Black Death—so named because internal hemorrhages caused by the infection make the skin appear black. But the pitbull that infected four Colorado residents carried the rarer respiratory strain of pneumonic plague, which is contagious when the infected person coughs up infected particulates. There is also septicemic plague, the most lethal form, which infects the blood, and most often occurs when plague virus has gone undetected and is allowed to spread.

In the U.S., you're generally only at risk of contracting plague in late spring to early fall if you've been in a rural or semi-rural area of the West, especially New Mexico, Arizona, or Colorado, and have had contact with fleas or rodents including ground squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs, or rats. And even then, the risk is low.

Only the pneumatic version of plague is contagious from human to human (though untreated bubonic plague can become pneumonic), but you have to be coughed upon, or receive fluid from an infected person upon an open wound or directly into your mouth or nose.

Plague symptoms mimic any flu—fever, chills, headache, difficulty breathing or coughing—but people have been known to cough up blood with the pneumonic variety. If you've been in a rural area, or camping, and come down with these symptoms two to three days later, it's best to go to a hospital.

Now for some good news: While untreated plague is quite deadly, people with plague who are treated with antibiotics within 24 hours of infection have strong recovery rates.

So while it's good to be aware and take precautions, the chances of another plague pandemic remain slim.

This story was originally published in 2015 and has been updated. 

7 Quick Tips for Disinfecting Your Home the Smart Way

Frequent cleaning of high-traffic areas can reduce the spread of illness in your home.
Frequent cleaning of high-traffic areas can reduce the spread of illness in your home.
BrianAJackson/iStock via Getty Images

With many people spending more time—or virtually all of their time—indoors, it’s natural for thoughts to turn to how to best clean surfaces that might help minimize the risk of spreading illness. Although researchers believe respiratory droplets are the primary way coronavirus is transmitted, preliminary data, which is not yet peer-reviewed, suggests the virus may remain on some surfaces for hours or days.

While scrubbing isn't a complex process, there are nonetheless some areas of your home you might be neglecting. Here’s how to best approach a household scrub, as well as identify and disinfect some common germ hot spots.

1. Pay attention to high-touch surfaces and clean them frequently.

High-touch surfaces are exactly what they sound like: Areas in the home that get handled and touched regularly. Think doorknobs, light switches, appliance handles, toilet handles, faucets, and remotes. And don’t forget laptops, keyboards, desks, and phones.

2. Don't just do a quick wipe down. Get the entire surface.

Taking a disinfecting wipe to the keyhole of a doorknob isn’t going to do you much good—it's important to really scrub all high-touch surfaces. Make sure you get every available surface area, including the plate behind the knob where fingers and hands often brush against it. When cleaning remotes, make sure you don't just scrub the buttons, but the space between them as well.

3. You can use soap and water.

While products claiming to kill 99.9 percent of germs are best in this scenario, there's another option if you're having a hard time tracking down those supplies—simply mix some dish soap in water. It won’t kill organisms, but it can remove them from the surface. (And while soap and water can work for high-touch surfaces throughout the home, you shouldn't use the solution on electronics like your remote or keyboard.)

If you’re looking to kill germs, diluted bleach (four teaspoons to one quart of water) and 70 percent alcohol solutions work well. But it's important to note that bleach and other cleaners can harm certain surfaces. So be sure to do your research and make sure the product you're using won't cause any damage before you start scrubbing.

4. Take laundry precautions.

If you’re trying to be extra-vigilant about the spread of germs in the house, you should consider washing clothes at the highest possible temperature and disinfecting laundry bins. It’s also advisable to use disposable laundry bags.

5. Remove your shoes before entering the house.

This step is more preventative, but it’s a simple way to keep from tracking in contaminants. Remove your shoes before going inside and leave them near the door. It's also a good idea to clean floor surfaces with disinfecting mop cloths, but be sure anything you use is safe for the finished surface. Cleaners like bleach can discolor certain materials.

6. Don't forget to clean your car.

Even people vigilant about cleaning their home can neglect their car interior. Since you’re constantly touching virtually every surface, be sure to wipe everything down regularly, including the steering wheel and door handles. If you have a leather interior, there are auto wipes available for those surfaces. And before you go wipe down any touchscreens, be sure to check your owner’s manual to see if they require any special microfiber cloth.

7. Give your debit cards a wipe.

It’s a good idea to disinfect credit or debit cards that follow you around on shopping excursions. As with all high-touch objects, be sure to wipe them down every day.

[h/t New York Times]

The World Health Organization Is Releasing a COVID-19 App to Combat Coronavirus Misinformation

WHO MyHealth is meant to help clear up misinformation surrounding the novel coronavirus.
WHO MyHealth is meant to help clear up misinformation surrounding the novel coronavirus.
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

As is the case with most crises, the novel coronavirus has become a breeding ground for misinformation. Because the disease is so new, there are a lot of unanswered questions surrounding it, but that hasn't stopped people from claiming to know how to treat, prevent, and detect COVID-19. In an effort to separate fact from fiction, the World Health Organization (WHO) is launching an app dedicated to sharing what we know and don't know about the virus, 9to5Google reports.

Named WHO MyHealth, the new app is a collaboration between former Google and Microsoft employees, WHO advisors and ambassadors, and other tech and health experts. Users will be able to compare their symptoms with those linked to COVID-19 and receive public health updates specific to their location. As of now, there are plans to invite people who have been either been diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19 to share their phone's location history to give experts a better idea of how the virus spreads.

WHO MyHealth, which is currently being built as open source, is set to roll out for Android and iOS on Monday, March 30. If you have questions about COVID-19 you need answered immediately, you can also access accurate and up-to-date information through the WHO's chatbot.

Any information regarding novel coronavirus should be met with skepticism when it can't be traced back to organizations like the WHO or the CDC—especially when it comes to supposed cures. No specific medication has been proven to treat or prevent COVID-19, so you shouldn't take advice from anyone claiming otherwise.

[h/t 9to5Google]

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