The Black Death Returns: Oregon Man in Critical Condition with the Plague

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Images of plague sufferers in an illumination from a 16th Century Perugian manuscript

In 21st century America, most of us don’t expect to meet our maker in certain arcane ways: arrow wounds, say, or Viking maurauders. Or the Black Death. And yet a man in Oregon has contracted the most feared disease of medieval Europe and is in critical condition.

The unidentified Oregonian, in his 50s, fell ill from the disease on June 2 when he tried to grab a mouse away from a cat. It is unclear which of those two animals bit his hand.

The disease — technically, an infection by a strain of bacterium known as Yersinia pestis — is the same plague from the Middle Ages that you read about in high school. The Black Death spread through Europe from 1347 to 1351, killing an estimated 25 million people. It is still carried by fleas, and humans can contract the disease either through flea bites or contact with an animal infested with diseased fleas (such as a rodent). Four other people have been diagnosed with the plague in Oregon since 1995, all of whom survived.

(MORE: The Black Death Bacterium Decoded)

The man and his family had extensive contact with the cat in question since it was abandoned six years ago in their neighborhood. The cat has since died and been sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing.

The patient checked into St. Charles Medical Center-Redmond on June 8 and was listed as being in critical condition at the larger St. Charles medical facility in Bend, Ore. on Tuesday. This particular strain of plague seems to be the septic plague, which causes abdominal pain, bleeding, and gangrene. A plague vaccine exists, but it is currently not sold in the United States.

READ: Four Diseased Scarier than Flesh-Eating Necrotizing Fasciitis