Oregon man contracts the plague after bitten by stray cat

Oregon man contracts the plague after bitten by stray cat »Play Video

PORTLAND, Ore. - It's an illness associated with the Middle Ages but a Central Oregon man is in critical condition in a Bend hospital, infected with the plague

The local health department says he got the disease when a stray cat bit him.

The plague is incredibly rare nationwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are only about 14 cases every year.

In this case the family told health officials an outdoor cat they called their family cat came home one day looking very ill. That cat bit the man, who is in his 50s, and he was in critical condition in the hospital within 48 hours.

According to the Crook County health department, the cat was likely bitten by plague-infested rat fleas. When those fleas bite animals, those animals are infected and any close contact with that animal can result in human infection.

Emilio DeBess, a veterinarian for the state of Oregon, said in Oregon four people have been infected with the plague during the last three years. All of them survived.

He said most people, more than 80 percent, will survive with antibiotic treatment if it's caught early. It can be treated with antibiotics since it is bacteria, not a virus. And it's not easy to spread.

"Most of these fleas actually live in mice and rats. That's their host," DeBess said. "They don't tend to like humans or be attached to humans or go after humans in any way. So the possibility of humans getting the plague is pretty rare."

It's also rare to catch the plague from another person.

"I have to be coughing a lot," DeBess said. "The cough droplets actually have to land on you and then you need to inhale them for you to get plague."

Additionally, only about 1 percent of all fleas are infected with plague.

The last time a human contracted the plague from another human was in 1924. In Oregon two people have died from the plague. That was in 1983 in Klamath County and 1987 in Douglas County.

While it is rare, veterinarians say people can limit their risk by limiting their contact with stray animals and keeping their own animals up-to-date with flea treatments.

Symptoms of the plague include high fever and sometimes swollen lymph nodes. But it varies with each case.

Plague Fact Sheet (pdf)