Sunny Skies and Black Death: A Plague Warning from the CDC

Aug 10, 2016
Hungry Squirrel

The squirrels were out and trying to find food to store for the winter.

Susan Williams

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Don’t you just love the news! The latest warning is that—with warm sunny days and enough rain to break the drought in most of the West—we face increased risk from bubonic plague … the Black Death!

According to the Center for Disease Control, the United States alone has had 11 cases of plague this year, the most in ten years. The reason: good weather, healthy exercise, and fleas.

Sunny daysthe perfect weather to catch the plague!
Source: The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut (Inspired by the medieval plague epidemic)

Plague is scary. In the Middle Ages, it was called the Black Death, causing boils and portions of the body to turn black and rot with gangrene. The bacteria, carried by fleas, killed roughly 66% to 93% of its victims. One epidemic killed as much as 60% of Europe.

Now though modern medicines can treat it, it still kills 16% of its victims. It is also carried by rodents here in the Western U.S., so about 7 people catch it a year. Unfortunately, this has been a great year for rodents, lots of spring moisture and warm summer temperatures. The sunny days have also encouraged people to enjoy the great outdoors, so there have been a higher number of rodent/human encounters and people catching plague.

Cute but guilty! Plague fleas are endemic in western ground squirrels. Source: US Park Service

So are you at risk?

  1. Do you live in the Western, particularly the Southwestern US?
  2. Do you hike and stroll through the woods and fields?
  3. Do you like to feed the cute little animals, like the fuzzy ground squirrels?
  4. If you see a sick little wild animal, does your big heart make you go pick it up? (DON’T!)
  5. Do you live close to woods and fields?
  6. Do you own a cat that hunts outdoors and lovingly brings you little treasures of dead rodents?
  7. And—oh, yes—do you have black rats living in your house?

If you answered yes, you might want to take a few precautions.

Basically, don’t touch dead rodents. Make sure rodents don’t want to be where you are. Put flea powder on your pets. Use insect repellent when you go outside. And if you get flu-like symptoms after a bug bite, go to a doctor.

Now, go out and enjoy the beautiful sunny weather!

About This Blog

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to "Weather Whispers" by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather—from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these blog posts. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.

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For 8 centuries, people

For 8 centuries, people thought that the plague in the Middle Ages was from fleas carried by rats, but we've recently learned that it probably wasn't the rat, but the gerbil! The rats are finally cleared from a bad rap (alas, I think it's too late).

Yes, Sarah! - This is also

Yes, Sarah! - This is also what I had read just lately. - Seems rather weird, though, that people in the middle ages would have gerbils anywhere around - at least not enough to cause the massive destruction of people that the plague caused. Also read that 'horsemen' rarely got the plague. Fleas don't like horses for some reason.

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