WHO says bubonic plague situation in China is not 'high risk', here's all you need to know about the disease

The plague is caused by a bacteria named Yersinia pestis and it spreads through flea and contact with infected animals such as mice, rats, rabbits, marmots and squirrels


                            WHO says bubonic plague situation in China is not 'high risk', here's all you need to know about the disease
(Getty Images)

The bubonic plague in China, which was nicknamed Black Death in the Victorian era, does not seem to pose a high-risk, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The health agency added that it was carefully watching the situation.

"Bubonic plague has been with us and is always with us, for centuries. We are looking at the case numbers in China. It's being well managed," WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said at a press briefing. "At the moment, we are not considering it high risk, but we're watching it, monitoring it carefully," she added.

On July 6, China confirmed the disease in a herdsman from Bayannur city, located in western Inner Mongolia, about 899 km from Beijing. The patient is believed to have contracted the infection after eating marmots, which are giant ground squirrels. He is currently being treated in a hospital and is in a stable condition. Authorities are suspecting the infection in a 15-year-old boy. There is more. Only last week, two brothers developed the bubonic plague in a neighboring country, Mongolia. They had also eaten the same animal, reports suggested.

Following the development, China issued a level 3 warning in the city to prevent a possible blow-up. It will stay in place for a year. According to Global Times, Chinese authorities have asked city dwellers to strictly follow prevention and control measures, including steering clear of hunting, eating or carrying the animals and their products out of the area. Russia has warned communities living near Mongolia to stop killing marmots.

The patient is believed to have contracted the infection after eating marmots (Getty Images)

"At present, there is a risk of a human plague epidemic spreading in this city. The public should improve its self-protection awareness and ability, and report abnormal health conditions promptly," the local health authority said, according to reports.

What is bubonic plague?

The plague is caused by a bacteria named Yersinia pestis. It spreads through flea and contact with infected animals such as mice, rats, rabbits, marmots and squirrels. The symptoms are flu-like, including fever, cough, chills and weakness. It also leads to painful and swollen lymph nodes, which can get as large as a chicken egg.

The Bubonic plague was once considered deadly. It caused an outbreak in the 14th century and was dubbed the Black Death at that time. Millions are estimated to have died, according to reports. The bacteria was also behind the Great Plague of 1665, where about 15% of London's population died. It resurged in the 19th century in China and India, killing more than 12M people.

Currently, antibiotics are used to treat the disease and it has significantly cut the death toll. The WHO estimates that 8–10% of the people who contract the plague die. Before antibiotics came into the picture, the fatality rate stood at 66%.

The WHO estimates that 8–10% of the people who contract the plague die (Getty Images)

What do we know of recent plague cases?

Cases erupt now and then. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the disease continues to occur in rural areas in the western US. However, it is common in parts of Africa and Asia. In the recent past, two people from Mongolia died after contracting the infection in 2019. And in 2017, Africa's Madagascar recorded more than 300 cases. Of them, less than 30 people may have died.

The disease is treatable and is not expected to trigger an epidemic. "Unlike in the 14th Century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr Shanti Kappagoda, an infectious diseases doctor at Stanford Health Care, told Healthline. "We know how to prevent it," she added.

In the meantime, experts are urging people not to vilify marmots. “We already have had the vilification of bats due to Covid-19. Please do not shift your attention to marmots now,” Sabuj Bhattacharyya, a member of the Lagomorph Specialist Group in Species Survival Commission (SSC), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Switzerland, told Down To Earth. “Marmots play a very important role in Himalayan ecology. They are prey species for predators including the snow leopard, red fox, hawks, kestrels and eagles,” he added.

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