It’s supposed to be a disease of the middle ages, but every year a few people in the United States contract the bacterial infection that killed half the population of London in the fourteenth century. The latest victim of plague was a high school student in rural Colorado.

16-year-old Taylor Gaes was an athlete who probably picked up the septicemic plague while wandering on his parents’ property in the Cherokee Park area of Colorado. Doctors are not sure what the vector of infection was, but they speculate Gaes may have picked it up from a flea bite or a dead animal. Septicemic plague is a rare form of plague which gets into the blood and kills very quickly. Gaes reported flu symptoms four days before he died.

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4 years ago, scientists finally identified the bacteria that causes the plague. It’s known as Yersinis pestis, and in 2011 researchers published a complete sequence of the bacteria’s genome, based on samples taken from skeletons recovered from a mass grave dug in medieval London during the height of the epidemic. What they found was that today’s Y. pestis bacteria are quite similar to the ones that ravaged Europe centuries years ago.

The difference is that modern medicine can usually treat plague strains with antibiotics. And that’s why local health officials in Colorado’s Larimer County are asking people with flu symptoms to visit their doctors right away, especially if there’s a possibility they have flea bites.

[via Denver Post]


Contact the author at annalee@gizmodo.com.
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