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Here’s What We Know About The New Bubonic Plague In China

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Marlo Safi Culture Reporter
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While the coronavirus pandemic has occupied most of the attention in 2020, the cause of the deadliest epidemic in human history has also appeared on medical radars: the bubonic plague.

Multiple people in China were confirmed to have the bubonic plague in July and August. In the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, a village was reportedly sealed off after a resident died there from the bubonic plague. Authorities ordered daily disinfection of homes, according to CNN

Before the most recent case, authorities closed several tourist spots in another city in Inner Mongolia where two cases of bubonic plague was found in July. Between 2009 and 2019, 31 cases of the bubonic plague were reported, which included 12 deaths. The two men had reportedly eaten marmot meat, a type of large ground squirrel that is eaten in some parts of China and Mongolia and has been tied to plague outbreaks in the region. In 2019, a couple died of the plague after eating the raw kidney of the animal, according to CNN.

TOPSHOT - This photo taken on March 4, 2014 shows a man carrying a child in the center of Bayan-Ulgii, in Ulgii soum, in Mongolia. - (BYAMBASUREN BYAMBA-OCHIR/AFP via Getty Images)

TOPSHOT – This photo taken on March 4, 2014 shows a man carrying a child in the center of Bayan-Ulgii, in Ulgii soum, in Mongolia. – (BYAMBASUREN BYAMBA-OCHIR/AFP via Getty Images)

The World Health Organization has been monitoring the issue, but assured that the situation is “being well managed.” “Bubonic plague has been with us and is always with us, for centuries. We are looking at the case numbers in China,” spokeswoman Margaret Harris said according to the BBC.

“At the moment, we are not considering it high risk but we’re watching it, monitoring it carefully.”

While bubonic plague is a frightening prospect, especially while facing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has crippled much of the world, there’s no reason to fear a bubonic plague reemergence. While scientists are still scrambling to learn more about the novel coronavirus, they’re pretty well-acquainted with the bubonic plague’s transmissibility today.

The bubonic plague is caused by a bacterial infection and sparked one of the deadliest epidemics in human history, known as the Black Death. Roughly 50 million people died across Africa, Asia and Europe in the 14th century. Symptoms of the bubonic plague include typical signs of illness like high fever, chills and nausea, but also swollen lymph nodes around the body and open sores.

Fortunately today, there are treatments for the bubonic plague and we know how to prevent it.

“Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted,” Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told Healthline in a 2019 interview. 

A man holding his mobile phone walks past a poster by Italian urban artist Salvatore Benintende aka "TVBOY" depecting Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa wearing a protective facemask and holding a mobile phone reading "Mobile World Virus" in a street of Barcelona on February 18, 2020, a week after the World Mobile Congress was cancelled due to fears stemming from the coronavirus that sparked an exodus of industry heavyweights. (Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

A man holding his mobile phone walks past a poster by Italian urban artist Salvatore Benintende aka “TVBOY” depecting Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa wearing a protective facemask and holding a mobile phone reading “Mobile World Virus” in a street of Barcelona on Feb. 18, 2020, a week after the World Mobile Congress was cancelled due to fears stemming from the coronavirus that sparked an exodus of industry heavyweights. (Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

“We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission,” she said. “We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick.”

Y. pestis, the bacteria that causes the bubonic plague, spreads through infected fleas or animals, including rodents and squirrels. The marmot, which is believed to have been eaten by the two people who were infected with the plague in China recently, is also thought to have caused the 1911 pneumonic plague epidemic which killed nearly 63,000 people in northeast China.

Authorities in the region urged people to reduce contact with wild animals, including marmots, which are hunted for their fur and are popular among international traders, according to CNN.

A bubonic plague smear, prepared from a lymph removed from an adenopathic lymph node, or bubo, of a plague patient, demonstrates the presence of the Yersinia pestis bacteria that causes the plague in this undated photo. (Photo by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Getty Images)

A bubonic plague smear, prepared from a lymph removed from an adenopathic lymph node, or bubo, of a plague patient, demonstrates the presence of the Yersinia pestis bacteria that causes the plague in this undated photo. (Photo by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Getty Images)

The plague is extremely rare, causing only a couple thousand cases each year. Cases are concentrated in Africa, India and Peru, according to Healthline. There are only around seven cases per year in the U.S., usually in southwestern states like Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado, where wild rodents carry Y. pestis. (RELATED: Squirrel Tests Positive For Bubonic Plague In Colorado)

“Prairie dogs are the main reservoir for plague, and they tend to be west of the 100th meridian,” he says, referring to the areas of the U.S. where plague cases were found. The geography and climate of the Western US suits them, Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Health Security, told BBC, referring to these areas as the “plague line.” The fact that prairie dogs are are “social animals” helps the infected fleas to spread.

The disease can be treated with antibiotics, but if it’s left untreated, it has a 30-60% fatality rate. 

The bacteria is typically transmitted from animal to human, and can’t be passed from human to human, although human-to-human transmission can happen with pneumonic plague when cough droplets are spread into the air, but it’s very rare.

 It also is easily killed by sunlight.

“If the bacteria is released into air it can survive for up to1 hour depending on the environmental conditions,” Dr. Robert Glatter told Healthline. 

The plague is also curable with antibiotics, which reduced the mortality rate to 11%, and can be used as a preventative measure. Preventative antibiotics are given to people who may not yet be sick with the plague, but who’ve interacted with an animal or person who was infected.