Let's be honest: being responsible for a tiny human life is really scary. Part of being a parent is wanting to keep your child safe and happy, yet it can honestly feel like danger lurks around every corner. Chemicals, Lyme disease, dry drowning, button batteries, toppling furniture — sometimes millennial parenting feels like one never-ending list of terrifying keywords you should never, ever Google if you want to sleep at night. But just in case you weren't already anxious enough, a child in Idaho has the plague, and it kind of makes me never want to let my kids leave the house ever again.
I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who hears "the plague" and envisions the Black Death that wiped out a significant portion of the European population in the Middle Ages, but it turns out that, not only is the plague still a thing you can get, it's actually something an American child was recently diagnosed with. As horrifying as that sounds though, the good news is, thankfully, it's not a sign we're about to be hit with a deadly pandemic — modern cases of the plague are rare among humans, and antibiotics are effective at treating them. But the plague can still be fatal if left untreated, which means there are some important things you should know about how to prevent it, as well as how to recognize the symptoms.
The Idaho Central District Health Department confirmed this week that a child in Elmore County had, in fact, been infected by the plague, according to The Idaho Statesman, and though they have now been treated with antibiotics and are recovering, it's still pretty notable given that that child has now become the first human to actually contract it since 1992 — and only the fifth human case in the state’s history, according to East Idaho News.
While it's not exactly known where the child would have contracted the disease, the plague is most often found in ground squirrels and rodents, and, though rare, it can spread to humans through contact with an infected animal, or from a bite from an infected flea, according to The Idaho Statesman. For the most part, that means that prevention measures are pretty straightforward: don't feed or handle rodents — particularly if they're sick or dead, though I'm not sure why you'd want to — and make sure you stay on top of flea prevention and treatment with your pets. And if your dog or cat comes in contact with a sick or dead rodent? Make sure you take them to the vet to get checked out pronto.
The main concern though when it comes to the plague is that it's an illness that seems so obscure that few people would even consider they might have it. And since the symptoms are quite similar to the flu, it can be easy to misdiagnose. So while the likelihood that you actually have the plague is low, it's worthwhile to be aware that the plague usually causes fever, chills, headache, weakness, and, with the bubonic plague specifically, "swollen and black-and-blue lymph nodes usually near the site of the flea bite," according to CNN.
Since it's a disease primarily affecting wildlife, those who live on farms or ranches, or spend a large amount of time outdoors are likely at a higher risk, and it also seems to be more common in the western United States. And while it's probably unlikely that we'll see another Black Death anytime soon (hygiene and improve sanitation practices have pretty much taken care of that), it is worth being aware of — especially if you are someone who might be at a higher risk due to where you live, or how much exposure you may have to rodents or fleas.
Unfortunately though, because it's a disease primarily found in animals, it's also unlikely that the plague will ever completely disappear. The bacteria that causes the plague, Yersinia pestis, still very much exists in animal populations, according to USA Today, and leads to an average of seven cases of the plague each year in the United States.
Of course, chances are good that you'd know if you or your child were bitten by fleas, or if you'd come in contact with rodents. And even if you didn't, most people would see a doctor even if they just thought they had the flu. So while the plague doesn't at all seem like something worth seriously worrying about, it also probably doesn't hurt to know that it's not actually an eradicated disease that seemed to only exist in history textbooks.