A 7-year-old girl from Pagosa Springs, Sierra Jane Downing fell sick after she returned from a camping trip in Colorado. Her parents thought she had the flu, but after a seizure, they rushed her to a hospital where she was diagnosed with bubonic plague.
The Downings were shocked that their daughter had caught the disease that reportedly killed close to 40 percent of Europeans in the Middle Ages. According to historians, bubonic plague killed about 25 million Europeans in the Middle Ages.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports Sierra's father, Sean Downing, said: "I didn't know what was going on. I just reacted (after she had a seizure). I thought she died."
According to The Atlantic Journal Constitution, Sierra Jane was first admitted to the Pagosa Springs emergency room on August 24 before she was flown to Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver. Doctors at the Rocky Mountain Hospital, observing the patient's symptoms, suspected she might have caught bubonic plague. According to AJC, Dr. Jennifer Snow's suspicion was based on Sierra's symptoms and a similar case reported in an online journal.
Doctors say that Sierra Jane had a swollen lymph node in her left groin, high heart rate and low blood pressure. A pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Wendi Drummond, who agreed with Snow's suspicion that Sierra Jane had bubonic plague, placed her on antibiotics while tests were being run. The test results confirmed doctors' suspicion.
CBS Denver reports that was the first case of bubonic plague doctors at the hospital had seen. Dr. Tracy Butler, medical director of the hospital's pediatric intensive unit, said: "I credit them for thinking outside the box."
According to CBS Denver, Dr. Snow said: "I had never seen it. You learn about it in medical school during microbiology, but I had never seen a case of it before. If she had stayed at home she could have easily died within 24 to 48 hours."
Doctors say they believe Sierra may have been infected by insects near a dead squirrel at the campground on US Forest Service land. According to Sierra's mother Darcy Downing, she warned her daughter to leave the squirrel alone but she later saw her near the squirrel. Darcy said: “Her little pink sweatshirt was on the ground nearby and what we think happened is I had her tie it around her waist as the family was leaving and we found some flea bites around her torso."
Bubonic plague is treated with antibiotics, but medical experts say the illness must be diagnosed early for effective treatment. The Daily Mail reports doctors say that without treatment two-thirds of patients who contract the illness die within four days. Drummond said: "It's one of those things that you don't necessarily expect to see. But, it's definitely one of those things you don't want to miss."
Bubonic plague is transmitted through fleas or through contact with infected animals such as rats, cats and other pets. Symptoms of bubonic plague include gangrene, cramps, seizures, swollen and painful lymph nodes called bubo, found in the groin, armpits, and neck.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been outbreaks of other diseases transmitted by insects and rodent pests in the US recently. Digital Journal recently reported an outbreak of West Nile virus transmitted by mosquitoes in Texas and some other states.
Digital Journal also reported that in June an Oregon man became ill with bubonic plague after he was bitten by a stray cat. The man was trying to pull a mouse out of the cat's mouth when he was bitten.
Doctors say Sierra Jane will be discharged from the hospital within a week.