Science and Tech


New Mexico man dies after contracting rare case of bubonic plague

The state's first case of the bacterial disease in four years has left it looking for a cause and if there's an ongoing community risk.
A bubonic plague warning sign is displayed at a parking lot.
Posted at 7:10 PM, Mar 11, 2024

A New Mexico man has died after contracting the bubonic plague.

The state's Department of Health said the unidentified Lincoln County resident succumbed to the illness after being hospitalized. This was the first plague death in New Mexico since 2020 — when the state saw four cases — and its first human case since 2021.

"This tragic incident serves as a clear reminder of the threat posed by this ancient disease and emphasizes the need for heightened community awareness and proactive measures to prevent its spread," said State Public Health Veterinarian Erin Phipps.

The department said it's conducting outreach to area residents and doing an environmental assessment to look for ongoing risks, while details of how the New Mexico man contracted the plague and why it affected him so severely are not known. 

The U.S. averages about seven human plague cases a year, and from 2000-2020, the nation saw 13 deaths associated with the bacterial disease, per the CDC.

It's generally spread to humans through the bite of an infected flea, but people can also become infected through direct contact with infected tissues or sick humans or animals, including rodents, wildlife and pets. The CDC says humans can also get the plague through inhaling respiratory droplets containing the bacteria.

Pet cat blamed for infecting Oregon man with bubonic plague
A pet cat

Pet cat blamed for infecting Oregon man with bubonic plague

Animals typically become infected after being bitten by fleas carrying the plague bacterium.


When infected, a patient typically develops a fever, headache, chills, weakness and one or more swollen lymph nodes within two to eight days, the CDC says. The bacteria will multiply in lymph nodes typically near where it enters the body, and if untreated, it will spread to other areas, including the lungs and bloodstream. 

Once it's in the bloodstream, the disease can turn into septicemic plague, a severe and often fatal illness that can cause skin and other tissues to turn black and die. Once in the lungs, bubonic turns to pneumonic plague, which can cause respiratory failure and shock, according to the CDC.

The plague can be successfully treated with antibiotics, preferably within 24 hours of first symptoms. Diagnosed patients will be hospitalized, and in cases of progression to more serious forms, they will be medically isolated to prevent further spread.

The disease can pop up anywhere, anytime, but it's most commonly seen in late spring to early fall and in rural and semirural areas of the Western U.S., the CDC says. It's most common in Southwestern states, including New Mexico.

In February, someone in Oregon was diagnosed with the bubonic plague for the first time since 2015. The man was treated with antibiotics, and health officials said they believe his pet cat was the source of his infection.