|1.||Front Vet Sci. 2019 Mar 28;6:75. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2019.00075. eCollection 2019.|
1. United States Geological Survey, Fort Collins Science Center, Fort Collins, CO, United States.
2. Department of Biology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, United States.
Plague (caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis) is a deadly flea-borne disease that remains a threat to public health nearly worldwide and is particularly disruptive ecologically where it has been introduced. We review hypotheses regarding maintenance and transmission of Y. pestis, emphasizing recent data from North America supporting maintenance by persistent transmission that results in sustained non-epizootic (but variable) rates of mortality in hosts. This maintenance mechanism may facilitate periodic epizootic eruptions “in place” because the need for repeated reinvasion from disjunct sources is eliminated. Resulting explosive outbreaks that spread rapidly in time and space are likely enhanced by synergistic positive feedback (PFB) cycles involving flea vectors, hosts, and the plague bacterium itself. Although PFB has been implied in plague literature for at least 50 years, we propose this mechanism, particularly with regard to flea responses, as central to epizootic plague rather than a phenomenon worthy of just peripheral mention. We also present new data on increases in flea:host ratios resulting from recreational shooting and poisoning as possible triggers for the transition from enzootic maintenance to PFB cycles and epizootic explosions. Although plague outbreaks have received much historic attention, PFB cycles that result in decimation of host populations lead to speculation that epizootic eruptions might not be part of the adaptive evolutionary strategy of Y. pestis but might instead be a tolerated intermittent cost of its modus operandi. We also speculate that there may be mammal communities where epizootics, as we define them, are rare or absent. Absence of plague epizootics might translate into reduced public health risk but does not necessarily equate to inconsequential ecologic impact.
PMCID: PMC6447679 Free PMC Article