Every year the cockles and cackles of my heart are warmed by that sensitive and touching film classic, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. My sniffling and sobbing are replaced by shock, however, when the movie is marred by a savage demonstration of gratuitous violence. From deep within the welcoming branches of a Christmas tree an evil menace lurks.
As an unsuspecting Chevy Chase separates the tree boughs, a feisty squirrel leaps from its hideout and bounds about the house as the terrified Griswolds and guests all but destroy the holiday home in an attempt to avoid this reckless rogue of a rodent. Mothers faint, men scream, the fear is palpable. Finally, Snot the dog chases the poor squirrel through the front door and straight into a Seinfeld episode.
How can these wee bushy-tailed guys cause this perfectly dysfunctional family to go so squirrelly? Perhaps Clark and crew knew only too well that squirrels carry more than their nuts in their cheeks, they just happen to be the leading cause of bubonic plague in North America!
Each year 15-20 cases of bubonic plague are reported in the west, stretching from BC and Alberta to New Mexico. Fleas, infected with the bacteria Yersinia pestis, ride around on rodents, primarily squirrels. When a flea-bearing squirrel or rat dies of the disease, the flea flees the furry fella and finds refuge in the next closest thing to rats, namely men. Fleas jump a sinking rat like rats jump a sinking ship. They land on any human who happens to handle the dead carcass of the squirrel, prairie dog, rabbit or mouse.
“Okay class, after our field trip to the forest it appears that Susie caught a cold, Billy scraped his knee and Ralph has a slight case of Black Death. How many times must you be told not to play hacky sack with deceased rodents?!”
A few days after exposure, the patient develops the infamous “flu-like symptoms”, followed by painful swollen lymph nodes known as buboes — or to be more medically precise, booboos. The bacteria set up shop in the blood system and the patient becomes septic. Several antibiotics can successfully combat Yersinia. The plague can also be directly transmitted via respiratory droplets courtesy of a coughing cat or human. This very nasty form of plague is known as pneumonic plague.
The Black Death scourge wiped out a third of Europe (25 million people between 1337-1342) so quickly that victims “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors.” Prior to Europe, the plague romped through Asia killing 30 million people. In total, the bubonic plague is responsible for the demise of 137 million humans. The last significant outbreak of plague was in 1994 in India when disaster relief workers brought so much food that soon the rat pack and fleas invaded town, killing 300 people.
Saddam and his happy harem of hellions know about the plague. Along with botulism, anthrax, ricin and smallpox, bubonic plague was one of the biological consequences of a Big Iraq Attack we prepared to contend with. But it would not be the first time that this organism has been used in biological warfare.
In 1346, while busy besieging a Genoese city, the Mongol attackers were plagued with the plague. Having to rid their camp of the disease-riddled bodies, they catapulted their dead comrades over the walls and into the city prompting the Genoese to flee this flying flea market as the Old Spice Girls broke into the first known rendition of “It’s Raining Men, Hallelujah.”
The Japanese dropped plague-infested fleas out of planes over Manchuria in the 1930s, prompting the Manchurians to sing “It’s Raining Fleas, Hallelujah.” But too many of the aircrew actually contracted the plague, so the Japanese actually packed the fleas into a shell and dropped the F (flea) bomb, an act that created mass casualties and wide spread terror.
Hopefully most terrorists would realize that bubonic plague can nowadays be treated with simple antibiotics. But just to be safe, not neurotic, I’m going to stash away some Tetracycline in my emergency medical kit . . . right under my catapult.