ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The Black Death that killed half the population of Europe in the 14th century spread to America through seaports 500 years later and last week claimed two more victims in the Southwest.
The latest victims -- an 11-year-old Indian boy and a 42-year-old Hispanic man, both in New Mexico -- lived about 100 miles apart and apparently contracted the disease from unrelated sources.
Dr. Jonathan Mann, chief of communicable disease control for New Mexico, said the boy died of bubonic plague -- the non-communicable variety -- and the man died of the infectious pneumonic strain.
He said preventive medicine has been given to about 15 people who had contact with the man.
As in most plague cases, he said, both victims lived in rural areas where they were more likely to have contact with rodents infested with germ-carrying fleas. The disease usually is transmitted through dead, wild animals although the fleas can be carried by domestic pets.
The plague first appeared in the United States in 1899 when an infected Japanese sailor arrived in San Francisco, Mann said. It apparently spread to New York about the same time, brought in from South America.
The earliest records of plague in Europe are in Athens in 430 B.C. An epidemic in Rome in 262 A.D. was to have killed 5,000 people a day.
But in the 14th century, it devastated much of the world. Records kept by Pope Clement VI indicated 23,840,000 Asians had died by 1346.
Historian Barbara Tuchman writes that half of the population of Europe had died by the end of the century.
'In the sense of our historic memory,' Mann said, 'the plague is one of the biggies -- one of the big-league diseases of all time.'
It never has caused that much destruction in the New World, Mann said, but the disease still is so dreaded that even mention of the word, plague, causes alarm.
He cited a case in a small New Mexico town a few years ago. When the victim's neighbors tried to shop at a larger town nearby, he said, merchants were reluctant, fearing they could get the disease by touching the shoppers' money.
When it strikes, Mann said, 'There are basically two problems: tracking down the people potentially in contact with an infectious plague victim and where the source was in nature.'
It requires detective work, Mann said, including the backtracking to determine who had contact with the victim the week before death.
'We don't care about two weeks ago or last month,' he said. 'We're focusing on where he's been in the week before he got sick.'
Dr. Thomas Quan, director of the plague laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control branch in Fort Collins, Colo., said five cases of plague -- including one death -- were confirmed in the United States in 1982 prior to last week. The cases were in Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico and Texas, where the victim died.
In 1981, he said there were 13 confirmed cases, including four deaths. Six were in New Mexico, four in Arizona, and one each in California, Colorado and Oregon. Three of the deaths were in New Mexico and one in Oregon.