Woman Catches Most Deadly Form of Plague From Her Cats

Pneumonic plague rarely occurs in humans; her case is severe
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 21, 2021 12:03 PM CDT
Woman Catches Most Deadly Form of Plague From Her Cats
A woman pets a cat in this stock photo.   (Getty Images/NiseriN)

A woman in Wyoming has come down with pneumonic plague, the most severe form of plague and the only one that can pass from person to person, which she likely caught from her cats. The state Health Department reported Wyoming's seventh human case of plague in 43 years—a "rare but serious" case in a woman in northern Fremont County on Sept. 15—noting the disease was believed to have passed through "contact with sick pet cats," reports Live Science. The CDC notes cats are "a common source of Yersinia pestis [plague] infection in humans."

Plague cases overall are rare in the US, with only about seven occurring each year. Some 80% of those result from bubonic plague, which often spreads through bites from fleas or infected animals. Pneumonic plague occurs when Yersinia pestis reaches the lungs. It can then spread from animal to person and from person to person through infectious droplets, much like COVID-19. Symptoms include "fever, headache, weakness, and a rapidly developing pneumonia with shortness of breath, chest pain, and sometimes watery or bloody mucous," according to the department.

Authorities are reaching out to those who may have had contact with the woman to offer a seven-day course of antibiotics. But only the one case has been identified so far, per Gizmodo. The CDC notes early treatment in a confirmed case of pneumonic plague is "essential. … To reduce the chance of death, antibiotics must be given within 24 hours of first symptoms." The death rate from plague cases in the US is about 11%, according to the agency. The woman continues to experience serious symptoms, an epidemiologist with the health department tells Gizmodo. (A 10-year-old died of plague in Colorado this summer.)

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