Plague revisited in New York City with 60,000 people at risk

With a worst-case scenario of 60,000 people sick and six deaths, Mayor Bill de Blasio warned residents of a potential epidemic that brought a sense of anxiety back to New York City.

“Every day we’re being reminded of the risks that we face and the difficult decisions we must make to combat this virus,” de Blasio said at a news conference on Thursday.

The bubonic plague had not been declared an epidemic here in New York since 1929, and it hasn’t been seen in the United States since the 1980s, the city said.

But it appeared that plague was making a comeback. In October, public health officials were treating an outbreak of plague among 10 rodents in the Bronx and Brooklyn, an activity the city at the time described as a “historically rare occurrence.”

Part of the problem is that the disease—which is spread by fleas that bite infected rodents—is rarely transmitted from person to person. The odds are slim, but the city is proposing a $6 million expansion of the city’s open-air rodent-control programs, such as poison baits.

For those fearful of contracting the plague, New York has these recommendations:

Exercise caution when handling a plague-infected rodent, and use clean gloves. Symptoms can take from three to 21 days to appear.

Oral antibiotics aren’t needed for an adult, but there is advice to prevent the disease from developing in children up to 10 years old.

The disease can be transmitted through kissing, biting, or by body fluids such as saliva.

If you have pneumonic plague, don’t panic.

“There is still no reason to panic,” the city said in a news release. “Clinicians don’t recommend a person close to an infected individual avoid vigorous physical activities for at least a week and most who contract the disease will recover with timely medical treatment.”

As with most infectious diseases, there are vaccines, but New York officials advise that even if you don’t have them, you should still watch for symptoms.

Those symptoms include high fever, night sweats, headaches, chills, swollen lymph nodes, stomach pain, and a rash. Fecal or nasal secretions are sometimes the source.

First identified in Europe in 1406, plague disease was believed to have been wiped out by the French Revolution, but it has returned in more recently, in Europe and Asia.

It usually doesn’t afflict humans until the fleas bite and breed, or as the result of man-made infections—like mining, settlement, or the spread of deadly infectious diseases.

But these are less likely, the city said.

In the U.S., the disease tends to strike indigenous rural populations and people in rural areas, where fleas can spread it more easily. The disease rarely affects humans in the country, but in Europe it’s more common.

But it’s not just the plague that Manhattan residents are nervous about. In recent weeks, cases of the influenza, or H1N1, which killed thousands worldwide in 2009, have been reported here.

A woman died from the virus on Wednesday in Brooklyn. With no cure, flu season is usually not as deadly as the plague season, but this year—with more than a dozen people now hospitalized and around 100 sick or recovering—the flu has once again claimed lives, and brought back a sense of panic in the city.

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