Someone in Utah Has Died of the Plague, but Don’t Panic

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Public health officials revealed Thursday a Utah resident died from plague earlier this month, the first person to be diagnosed with the disease in the state since 2009.

The disease might sound medieval, but isn’t.

Most cases are now in Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the U.S., the last significant epidemic occurred in Los Angeles between 1924 and 1925, two decades after the disease was introduced to the country by rat-infested ships arriving from Asia and Europe.

Those flea-infested urban rodents spread Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague, to their rural counterparts in neighboring states. Since then, U.S. cases have been reported mostly in the West. The CDC has mapped recent cases here.

On average, seven people become infected with plague each year in the U.S. But there has been an increase this year: 11 cases were reported in six states by April, according to a CDC report released Tuesday.

“It is unclear why the number of cases in 2015 is higher than usual,” the CDC said.

Despite the increase, catching the plague in the U.S. is extremely unlikely, and the disease can be successfully treated with antibiotics if it’s caught in time.