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While the plague is extremely rare today, many express shock that cases still pop up at all.
That’s likely because people associate it with the “Black Death” that wiped out nearly half of the European population in the Middle Ages, which was caused by the same bacteria that modern cases are, according to Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health.
“When you use the terminology ‘plague,’ it has a lot of charged aspects to it mainly because of historical issues, mainly the bubonic and pneumonic plague of the 14th Century,” he said. “The plague was caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which is still very much alive and well around the world and generally seen in animal populations, and transmitted by the bite of a flea.”
Two new cases of the plague were confirmed in New Mexico’s Santa Fe County on Tuesday, health officials said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an average of seven cases of plague each year.
The plague is typically transmitted to humans through the bites of infected fleas, but can also be transmitted through contact with rodents or dead animals. While the plague is a serious illness, it can be treated if the symptoms — which vary depending on the type of plague — are recognized early, according to Leonard Krilov, Chair of Pediatrics at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola, N.Y., and an expert on infectious disease.
“The Black Death spread because of the horrible sanitation and crowding rampant in the Middle Ages, but even today fleas live on affected rodents, so …rodents at camping grounds can still have the plague, it’s just less concentrated and with better hygiene it doesn’t spread the same way,” he said.
But why hasn’t the plague been eradicated?
While it’s hard to completely eradicate a disease, researchers have more luck when humans are the only natural reservoirs of the disease, according to Pritish Tosh, an infectious disease physician and researcher at Mayo Clinic.
“When there is a zoonotic disease, or its coming from animals, there is a reservoir that is going to exist unless you get rid of that reservoir,” he said.
In the case of the plague, that would mean completely eradicating the animals that carry the plague, Tosh notes.
And the plague is not the only old-time disease that’s still lurking around today. While many infectious diseases are not as prevalent or rampant as before, cases occasionally pop up in the U.S. and other developed countries.
Fauci pointed to a recent outbreak of yellow fever in Brazil.
He noted that yellow fever, which is a virus spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, wreaked havoc on native populations in the United States and South America decades ago.
“In the [1790s] when our government was centralized in Philadelphia, there were so many cases the government left and got everyone out of town,” Fauci said.
Several months ago, yellow fever broke out in rural areas of Brazil. There were considerable deaths, Fauci said, and Brazil responded by launching a massive yellow fever vaccination campaign in hopes of preventing the disease from showing up in populous areas like Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo.
Fauci said measles, which is a viral infection of the respiratory system, is another example of a disease that was once rampant, and occasionally rears its ugly head.
“Here in our own hemisphere, we suppressed [measles] completely,” he said. “You don’t think of measles outbreaks that kill hundreds of thousands of people, and years ago measles did that, and in certain parts of the world it still does.”
Cases have continued to pop up in the United States, Fauci said, typically from people who have stopped vaccinating their children.
He points to outbreaks in Minnesota and at Disney World which gained massive media attention. According to the CDC, as of June 17 this year, 108 people from 11 states were reported to have measles.
When it comes to prevention of infectious diseases, Fauci said getting recommended vaccinations is key.
“If you can vaccinate against it, you should get vaccinated,” he said.
According to the CDC, people can also reduce their chances of contracting the plague by reducing rodent habitat around their homes, treating pets for fleas, and wearing appropriate bug spray when camping or in areas where they may come into contact with fleas.