ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Unlike rubella, the plague has not been eradicated from the Americas. And a recent small outbreak could involve the first airborne spread of plague in the U.S. since 1924. NPR's Richard Harris has the story.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Last June, a Colorado man was admitted to the hospital with a serious lung infection. And when he didn't get better, a doctor sent a sample off to the state health lab. He had the plague.
JOHN DOUGLAS: That astute clinician asking the right question mattered a huge amount.
HARRIS: Dr. John Douglas, who runs the Tri-County Health Department east of Denver, scrambled a team to find out how he got the disease and who else might be at risk. Janine Runfola at the Department started tracking down his personal contacts.
JANINE RUNFOLA: And then we found out about his dog being positive for plague as well. And so we then had to find out who the dog was around.
HARRIS: The pit bull may have picked up the plague from prairie dogs in his rural neighborhood. Those rodents harbor plague bacteria. Turns out, the dog spread pneumonic plague to two people at the vet clinic where he was treated before the dog succumbed to the disease. A woman identified only as Patient D also fell ill after she had extended contact with the dog as well as the man.
RUNFOLA: Since that person was around that patient while they were coughing up blood, they could have also gotten it from that exposure.
HARRIS: That would be the first case of airborne person-to-person transmission of plague in the U.S. for 90 years. All told, Runfola says four people ended up sick, and all recovered once they got the right antibiotics.
RUNFOLA: Four is still a small number, but it's the largest pneumonic plague outbreak in the Unites States since 1924.
HARRIS: Plague is a very rare disease. Douglas says the U.S. averages eight cases a year.
DOUGLAS: Hopefully plague will not reemerge as it did in the Middle Ages, but it's certainly endemic in rodent populations in western states. It's something that those of us who live here will continue to encounter.
HARRIS: An account of this outbreak is published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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