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Plague and Other Human Infections Caused by Yersinia Species by Michael Putzker, Henner Sauer, Dirck Sobe

With an estimated 100 million victims, pandemically and epidemically occurring plague has been looked upon as a classical scourge of mankind during the last two millenia. Without treatment at least 50% of the affected individuals die from infection with Yersinia pestis, a bacterium belonging to the family of Enterobacteriaceae. The disease takes a fulminant course. After an incubation period of 2 - 6 days, bubonic plague primarity attacks one group of lymph nodes. The onset of pulmonic plague, transmitted by droplet infection, takes place within several hours and causes bronchopneumonia. Early recognition facilitates a promising antibiotic therapy with tetracycline, streptomycin or chloramphenicol. Human beings acquire the bacteria through bites of fleas from domestic rats in densely populated cities of countries with low hygienic standards, or sporadically in the open country from infected wild rodents. Laboratory procedure includes microscopy supplemented by immunofluorescence and cultivation of the bacterium from clinical material. Direct serology and PCR result in a fast detection of specific antigens or nucleotide sequences. Determination of serum antibodies is principally used for epidemiological investigation. Today, physicians in the civilized western world lack experience for the recognition of plague, and analytical techniques for diagnosis are only available in some specialized laboratories. Yersiniosis becomes primarily manifest as gastroenteritis caused by Yersinia enterocolitica or as pseudoappendicitis caused by Yersinia pseudotuberculosis and requires antibiotics only in severe septic cases. Different extraintestinal symptoms may be observed in dependence on the patient's HLA type and gender. The ubiquitous germ is mainly transmitted by the fecal-oral route via infected domestic or farm animals and contaminated food. The relevant virulence factors are encoded on a 70 kB plasmid common to all Yersinia species and strains that are human pathogens. The most important tools for laboratory diagnosis are culture from suitable body fluids and serological detection of specific antibodies. The infection rate among healthy individuals in Europe in terms of percentage of elevated IgA or IgG titers has been quoted to be 3 - 40% in different investigations but does not significantly correlate to direct bacteriological detection.

DOI: Clin. Lab. 2001;47:453-466