Oh, it's always been around. It just doesn't usually break out in an epidemic, and it's unlikely to do so unless there's some cataclysmic series of events that leads up to it.
Bottom line, though, is that if you live in a risky area (desert), do everything you can to minimize exposure to wild rodents.
Yep. There's usually about 1-3 deaths per year from it, which considering that it wiped out a full third of everyone from China to Iceland, is acceptable.
Historically, what we think caused the epidemic was an odd combination of coincidences. A population boom and spread of rats from the Gobi desert, followed by a die off, causing massive flea migration to human hosts (rapid decline in rodent populations have also been linked with other waves of plague). During the Mongol siege of Caffa, a Genoese merchant colony, the Mongol army began to be decimated by the plague. In a early version of biological warfare, they catapulted the infected corpses over the city walls, thus spreading it into the city. When the Genoese abandoned the city, they took the plague with them. Considering that the Italian city-states were major economic powers in Europe at the time, the plague then swept through Europe through predictable trade routes, and from those trading centers outward into the rest of the country.
The last major plague outbreak was global, due to the British Empire owning a huge chunk of the planet, and continued into the early 20th century.
The Japanese army used it as biological warfare during World War II, by bombarding cities with fleas carrying the plague. This resulted in localized outbreaks of epidemic proportions.
Now I feel wicked itchy.
It should also be worth noting that some scientists think that starting with the Black Death and continuing with repeated outbreaks, that Europeans have a certain degree of immunity to it. I think, if I remember, there is some sort of gene, and if you don't have it, you get the plague and die, removing you from the genepool. If one of your parents had it, you get sick but survive. If both parents have it, you don't get the plague. You're resistant to it. And even though the plague is a bacterial infection, some researchers think that immunity to it has also extended a degree of immunity to HIV infection, which is, of course, viral. I can't comment on this though, and it's been several years since I've heard about it.