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Plague is a systemic zoonosis caused by Yersinia pestis. It predominantly affects small rodents in rural areas of Africa, Asia, and the Americas and is usually transmitted to humans by an arthropod vector (the flea). Less often, infection follows contact with animal tissues or respiratory droplets. Plague is an acute febrile illness that is treatable with antimicrobial agents, but mortality rates among untreated patients are high. Ancient DNA studies have confirmed that the fourteenth-century “Black Death” in Europe was Y. pestis infection. Patients can present with the bubonic, septicemic, or pneumonic form of the disease. Although there is concern among the general public about epidemic spread of plague by the respiratory route, this is not the usual route of plague transmission, and established infection-control measures for respiratory plague exist. However, the fatalities associated with plague and the capacity for infection via the respiratory tract mean that Y. pestis fits the profile of a potential agent of bioterrorism. Consequently, measures have been taken to restrict access to the organism, including legislation affecting diagnostic and research procedures in some countries (e.g., the United States).


The genus Yersinia comprises gram-negative bacteria of the family Enterobacteriaceae (gamma proteobacteria). Overwhelming taxonomic evidence showing Y. pestis strains as a clonal group within Yersinia pseudotuberculosis suggests recent evolution from the latter organism—an enteric pathogen of mammals that is spread by the fecal-oral route and thus has a phenotype distinctly different from that of Y. pestis. When grown in vivo or at 37°C, Y. pestis forms an amorphous capsule made from a plasmid-specified fimbrial protein, Caf or fraction 1 (F1) antigen, which is an immunodiagnostic marker of infection.


Human plague generally follows an outbreak in a host rodent population (epizootic). Mass deaths among the rodent primary hosts lead to a search by fleas for new hosts, with consequent incidental infection of other mammals. The precipitating cause for an epizootic may ultimately be related to climate or other environmental factors. The reservoir for Y. pestis causing enzootic plague in natural endemic foci between epizootics (i.e., when the organism may be difficult to detect in rodents or fleas) is a topic of ongoing research and may not be the same in all regions. The enzootic/epizootic pattern may be the result of complex dynamic interactions of host rodents that have different plague susceptibilities and different flea vectors; alternatively, an environmental reservoir may be important.

image In general, the enzootic areas for plague are lightly populated regions of Africa, Asia, and the Americas (Fig. 68-1). Between 2004 and 2009, 12,503 cases of plague, with a global case-fatality rate of 6.7%, were recorded by the World Health Organization (WHO); these figures were obtained by combining cases notified under the International Health Regulations with data from national surveillance programs and publications. More than 97% of these cases were in Africa; ...

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