©2017 Kari Carlisle
I am at high risk for plague exposure. The Black Death. It’s a little disconcerting.
You’ve heard of The Black Death, the bubonic plague that crippled Europe in the 14th century. An infection of the bacteria, Yersinia pestis, the disease killed an estimated 75-200 million people. Recent archaeological excavations have exposed plague pits, mass graves that demonstrate the extent of the disease’s spread. Deaths occurred in such great quantities and so rapidly, the survivors could no longer bury the dead individually. They had to resort to placing the bodies into massive pits.
And the plague didn’t stop, either. Multiple pandemics through the centuries have continued to kill millions more. Today, Africa is hardest hit with hundreds of cases annually, primarily in Madagascar. In the United States, a mere 10-20 cases are typically diagnosed, most of them in the southwestern region. In the last year, a small number of cases were isolated to a campground in Yosemite National Park.
The plague is spread by fleas. I hate fleas. I’m particularly sensitive to their bites, an itchy, burning sensation that persists sometimes for two weeks. I’m not fond of biting insects (who is?), but fleas are hard to see, hard to catch, and friggin hard to kill. Plague-infected fleas do not get sick but pass the infection to mammals through their bites.
Prairie dogs have fleas. It’s a given. If the fleas do not carry the plague bacteria, the prairie dogs do just fine. If the fleas infesting a prairie dog town become exposed to plague bacteria, it’s not good for the prairie dogs. You’ll see a significant die-off of prairie dogs. Then what happens to the fleas? They find other mammals to infest, such as mice, rats, rabbits, cats, dogs, and people. A rapid prairie dog die-off is like the dead canary in the mine – if it happens, you know why. There are no other known reasons for a prairie dog die-off than bubonic plague.
The northeastern Arizona house I live in sits in the middle of a massive prairie dog town. And a few weeks ago, the prairie dogs disappeared. A rapid, massive die-off.
Nobody really noticed at first. The prairie dogs just sort of blend into the landscape. You get used to their chirps, so when they’re gone, you don’t even realize they’re gone. Finally, someone noticed, and everything shifted into gear. Officials were notified and government representatives began testing. Insecticide sprays and powders were administered, and notices posted. Everyone learned a lot about plague real fast.
The symptoms of plague are distinctly flu-like. Only it’s not the flu, and untreated, you have a 30-90% chance of dying a painful, gruesome death within days. With treatment, which is one of a few antibiotics that are effective against plague, the mortality rate drops to 10%… a sobering thought. Attempts have been made at a vaccine, but not with any real success. A vaccine has been developed for the prairie dogs, which is great for prairie dogs, but then we lose our canaries!
So here we are, keeping an eye out for flu-like symptoms in us and our dogs. We have been bitten by fleas within the last few weeks, and since plague symptoms begin with 3-5 days, we’re so far in the clear. I believe prevention is the best medicine, so trying to keep the house clean and flea-free is top priority. Now that winter has set in, I hope that the risk is over and done. Come spring, though, we will be diligent… Applying repellent essential oils to ourselves, the dogs, the furniture, and the yard. Using copious amounts of diatomaceous earth in and around the house. We’ll consider barriers to keep the skunks and cats out of the yard that like to steal our dogs’ food. And of course, at the first sign of flu-like symptoms, we’ll be seeking medical intervention.
I refuse to live in fear or even trepidation. So as in all things, I will trust God, enjoy life, and appreciate another viewing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Bring out your dead….