How Worried Should We Be About Squirrels Carrying the Bubonic Plague?

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A plague-infected squirrel caused the closure of a California campground this week after it was found during a routine trapping, Los Angeles County health officials confirmed. The bubonic plague — or the Black Death, as it used to be known — killed 25 million people in the Middle Ages, decimating the European continent. So should you be worried?

Well, not really... though it depends. If you live on the East Coast, or in a major city near with access to basic health care, then no. But, if you live out West and plan to go hiking or camping any time soon, don't go touching any dead squirrels. Actually, don't ever touch dead squirrels. Don't touch dead anything. Just don't.

Below is the map of recent incidences of plague, courtesy the Center for Disease Control:

Bubonic Plague map

As you can see, the plague is rare in the US, but not totally unheard of. Cases of the disease, often caused by flea bites, pop up a few times every year, according to the CDC. Historically, rats have been the key carrier of those fleas, and thus of the disease, although almost any of our furry friends, including squirrels and rabbits, are possible culprits. Camels, too.

"It is important for the public to know that there have only been four cases of human plague in Los Angeles County residents since 1984, none of which were fatal," noted health department chief Dr. Jonathan Fielding. 

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The plague is treatable with antibiotics, according to the CDC's website. Early medical attention is the key to a full recovery.

So it looks like we'll all be okay. But watch out if you do experience any of the plague's symptoms, including "sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, and weakness and one or more swollen, tender and painful lymph nodes." The real takeaway here: Don't hang out with squirrels, like this lady in Belarus. No matter how cute they are.

bubonic plague squirrels

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.