Medical Examiner

Wait, You Can Still Get the Plague?

A couple in Mongolia recently died of the plague, but only because they consumed a marmot kidney raw.

A black-tailed prairie dog
A potential agent of plague! Barbara Sax/AFP/Getty Images

The plague has, at various points in history, been responsible for wiping out over half of the human beings in Europe, killing some 10,000 people a day in what is now Istanbul, and possibly even felling the Roman Empire. At the beginning of this month, the plague again reared its head and killed a couple in Mongolia. The Washington Post’s two-beat headline sums it up superlatively well: “A couple ate raw marmot believed to have health benefits. Then, they died of the plague.”

While it makes sense, cosmically, that the plague would be yet another thing happening in the year of 2019 , the plague never actually went anywhere. We just have modern health precautions for avoiding it now, as we do for many illnesses that are just a couple bites of undercooked meat away from killing us.

Each year in the U.S., an average of seven people still get the plague. The most common is bubonic, though they’re all caused by the same bacteria. But it’s “really a wildlife disease,” biologist Nils Christian Stenseth told Pacific Standard earlier this year. It’s caused by bacteria that likes to live in rodents, though within the past year, three cats in Wyoming have been diagnosed with the plague, too. Flea bites are the main way it spreads to humans, according to a fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can also get it from touching, skinning, being coughed on—or presumably, wholesale ingesting—an animal with the plague. “Especially sick cats,” notes the fact sheet, which means the Wyoming cat owners ought to be careful. Dogs can get the plague too, which is why the CDC further advises that you don’t let them sleep in your bed in plague-y areas of the U.S.

What are those areas? Mostly Western states. Plague arrived here at the beginning of the 20th century via rats hitching rides on ships from Asia, where it spread to rodents in states including California and New Mexico (a location in which I have recently snuggled my dog!). The prairie dog can also get the plague, in fact, it is the CDC fact sheet’s poster-animal for the infection. The Badlands National Park in South Dakota where plague was detected in the animals in 2009, is outfitted with dramatic signs that warn “PRAIRIE DOGS HAVE PLAGUE!” Visitors are advised not to get too close to the cuddly critters.

This all sounds scary, understandably, as it’s the PLAGUE. But while outbreaks still occur—one killed 209 people in Madagascar in 2017—if you’re in the U.S., you’re probably just fine. We can thank modern protections like bug spray, flea treatment, and latex gloves for keeping us separated from the bacteria that transmit it. The last urban epidemic in the U.S. was in 1925 in LA, according to the CDC. There’s also a plague vaccine, but the disease is so rare that it’s not even available in the States. And even if you do get the plague, you probably will not die from it: from 2000-2017, it killed a grand total of…12 people in the U.S. That low number is thanks to antibiotics. Just the same, stay away from the prairie dogs, and cook your marmots thoroughly.