US States Where Bubonic Plague Is Most Prominent, According to Experts

Updated: Mar. 12, 2024

After a Southwestern patient dies, expert doctors break down the unexpected risks of contracting this ancient illness

united states map with state outlines on light orange backgroundYevhen Borysov/getty images

The bubonic plague made headlines this week following a March 8, 2024 report from the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) confirming a man’s death from the disease. Although commonly associated with the catastrophic Black Death pandemic that ravaged Europe centuries ago, the bubonic plague persists today, albeit very rarely, in certain regions of the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it affects approximately seven individuals annually.

This marks the second reported case of 2024. In late February, a man in Oregon was reported to have contracted the bubonic plague from his cat. The cause of death of the New Mexico individual has yet to be determined, but typically, the plague spreads from infected animals to humans through contaminated blood, often via a scratch from an infected house pet or during the handling of a hunted animal. New Mexico State Public Health Veterinarian Erin Phipps, DVM, MPH, remarked, “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.”

The CDC tracks all instances of plague and reports that 80% of cases in the U.S. manifest as bubonic plague, while septicemic and pneumonic forms also circulate. Bubonic plague spreads from animals, typically rodents, infected by fleas to larger animals, including outdoor or stray cats, that prey on these rodents. This form of plague is characterized by buboes, or swollen black lymph nodes, which develop following initial flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue, and weakness. Unlike in the Middle Ages, the bubonic plague is easily treatable with antibiotics if detected early. However, since the plague can be transmitted from person to person, containment measures must be swiftly implemented following an outbreak.

10 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch the Flu, According to Infectious Disease Experts

States where you’re most likely to contract bubonic plague

Bubonic PlagueKATERYNA KON/getty images

While the plague is rare, there are areas of the country where people or pets are more likely to contract it. The CDC notes two regions that have the highest rates:

  • Northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southern Colorado
  • California, southern Oregon, and far western Nevada

Between 1970 and 2020, reported cases were concentrated in these regions, with New Mexico accounting for the majority at 253 cases, nearly half of the total 496 reported cases nationwide. Colorado (66), Arizona (65), and California (45) are the other states where the disease is most prevalent. There have been zero cases in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Washington D.C., Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin in that time frame.

10 Ways You’re Washing Your Hands Wrong

How to prevent transmission of bubonic plague

To prevent the transmission of bubonic plague, individuals living in affected areas should take precautions. The CDC advises clearing areas where rodents gather near homes, wearing gloves when handling or disposing of deceased animals, utilizing flea control products to protect oneself and pets, and keeping pets indoors if residing in plague-prone areas. Additionally, it is advisable to refrain from petting or feeding stray animals that may carry the disease. If symptoms arise, seeking immediate medical attention is crucial for early intervention.