A man infected by a cat died from pneumonic plague, becoming the first human to die of plague in the United States since 1987, federal health officials said Thursday.
Doctors must realize plague has not been eradicated and must test for it in people who have symptoms, even if they don't live in areas where plague is present, the Centers for Disease Control said.
"When people think of plague, they think of the Middle Ages and all the people who died in Europe, and everyone thinks it's gone now," said Dr. Paul Ettestad, a CDC epidemiologist in Fort Collins, Colo. "It's not."
Plague is a deadly but usually treatable disease caused by bacterial infection. Its different names describe what part of the body is infected: pneumonic plague attacks the lungs, bubonic the lymph nodes and septicemic the bloodstream.
Plague is common among rodents in parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, California, Oregon and Nevada. It is usually spread by rodents' fleas; pneumonic plague also may be spread through air by coughing.
So far this year, 10 U.S. cases of human plague have been reported. Nine were bubonic, with some progressing to septicemic, but all of the patients recovered, Ettestad said.
The 10th, in Arizona, was the first case of pneumonic plague this year, the Atlanta-based CDC said.
The 31-year-old Tucson, Ariz., man became infected when he breathed the same air as an infected cat that he removed from the crawl space of a house in Chaffee County, Colo., the CDC said.
Puzzled doctors treated him for gastrointestinal disease, sepsis and pneumonia. They didn't know he was suffering from plague until they did an autopsy.