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Nowadays, plagues aren’t a regular occurrence in the United States, and especially not in Florida.
However, the deadliest plague in history once struck the Sunshine State at the start of the 20th century, according to the Florida state archives.
The bubonic plague — nicknamed the “Black Death” — was brought to the state’s panhandle back in 1920, resulting in a local outbreak.
According to the CDC, this plague is brought about by the bacterium “Yersinia pestis,” which can be transmitted to humans through fleas carried by rodents.
It can take anywhere from a couple of days to over a week for symptoms to develop, typically involving fevers, headaches, chills and painful lymph nodes, the CDC explains.
In the 14th century, this plague was responsible for wiping out between 30% and 60% of Europe’s population, where it got its nickname likely thanks to the dark lesions that patients would develop.
However, state records show that the plague didn’t die with this outbreak — it was discovered by a physician in Pensacola in the summer of 1920.
A ship loading lumber in Pensacola Harbor (c. 1900). Due to Pensacola’s position along the coast, it was a common spot for ships and boats, which could have been a source of the 1920 outbreak.
In that case, the patient had become “very suddenly ill and delirious with fever,” developing a swollen gland near his groin.
After the physician reached out to state health officials, it was determined that the plague had indeed come to Pensacola.
Since the disease wasn’t able to spread from person to person, officials eventually figured out that fleas from infested local rats had to be the source.
This 1920 flier urges Pensacola residents to trap rats and take precautions to help end the plague outbreak.
A huge effort was launched to eliminate the rats and mice responsible for the outbreak, with over 35,000 being captured between June 1920 and July 1921. While the average number of fleas per rodent was around 10, officials found a single rat with 211 fleas covering it.
Whenever a rodent infected with the plague bacteria was discovered, crews would find the source where the rodent was found and clean it up to prevent more from being attracted to the location.
This map shows the locations of humans and rodents found to be infected with plague during the 1920-1921 Pensacola outbreak. (U.S. Public Health Service/)
The eradication teams used over 1,200 pounds of cyanide and nearly 2,000 pints of sulphuric acid to fumigate these buildings. Seven houses were demolished, and 280 truckloads worth of trash were taken to the local dumps.
Meanwhile, city leaders passed new ordinances requiring business owners and residents to “ratproof” buildings, and plank sidewalks were replaced with stone, brick, or concrete.
In total, the outbreak tallied up to 10 confirmed cases, out of whom seven people died. The Florida Department of Health lists this as the last reported plague case in the state.
But could it happen again? Health officials say yes — though there’s no need to panic.
According to the CDC, plague infections are still found in rural areas of the western U.S., though they’re far more common in parts of Africa and Asia.
Reported cases of human plague between 1970 and 2020
The FDLE states the possibility remains that animals infected with plague bacteria could be imported into areas of the state where an outbreak could take root.
While the plague is considered an extremely deadly disease, it’s able to be treated with common antibiotics. If a patient is able to receive treatment early enough after infection, they face much better odds of a full recovery.
That being said, anyone showing symptoms who has recently traveled to the western U.S. or any other plague-endemic region is urged to seek health care immediately.
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