According to Chinese officials, doctors have recently diagnosed a third case of bubonic plague in a month. Although the plague is life threatening, it is treatable. The latest outbreak should not inspire panic.
The most recent case concerns a 55-year-old male who appears to have caught the plague from a wild rabbit that he had killed and eaten. This occurred in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
The local health agency have published a press release explaining that the male — from Xilingol League — is receiving treatment, and that 28 people who had been in close contact with him are in quarantine. At this stage, these people have not exhibited any symptoms.
This case follows two others that Chinese officials made public on November 12, 2019. These cases also occurred in Xilingol League.
Bubonic plague, which the bacterium Yersinia pestis causes, is infamous due to historical pandemics. Today, however, it is treatable using a range of antibiotics — as long as the treatment begins swiftly.
Untreated plague is fatal in around 50–60% of cases.
Then and now
In the 1300s, bubonic plague killed around one-third of the people in Europe. Otherwise known as Black Death, it was one of three major pandemics involving the plague.
Though many people consider bubonic plague a disease of antiquity, humans have never wiped it out entirely. In the United States, for instance, there are around seven cases of the plague each year.
The bacterium first arrived in the U.S. on rat infested boats arriving from Asia in 1900.
The last U.S. plague epidemic occurred in Los Angeles, CA, in the 1920s. Y. pestis has since moved from city rats to rural rodents, and it is in rural areas that the majority of cases now occur.
In particular, these areas include northern New Mexico, northern Arizona, southern Colorado, California, southern Oregon, and far western Nevada.
Further afield, outbreaks of the plague have occurred in Africa, Asia, and South America. Since the 1990s, most cases have occurred in Africa, and nearly all cases appear in small towns, villages, and agricultural regions.
What is bubonic plague?
Bubonic plague is one of three types of the plague. It results from infection with the bacterium Y. pestis. Most commonly, Y. pestis is spread by infected fleas that live on small animals.
Symptoms include fever, headache, and vomiting. People with the infection will often have buboes, which are painful swellings in the lymph nodes of the armpit, neck, and groin. If the infection goes untreated, bacteria can enter the bloodstream, causing septicemic plague.
From there, Y. pestis may reach the lungs, causing secondary pneumonic plague.
In the U.S., the first line of treatment involves intravenous antibiotics — usually gentamicin and fluoroquinolones. Treatment generally lasts for 10–14 days.
Although bubonic plague has a fearsome reputation, healthcare professionals consider pneumonic plague more contagious because it can spread more easily via coughing.
As with the U.S., China does not experience many plague outbreaks. The last substantial outbreak occurred on the Tibetan Plateau in 2009. In 2014, in the Chinese city of Yumen, officials sealed off large areas following a single death caused by bubonic plague.
In 2010–2015, there were 3,248 cases of the plague worldwide. These cases resulted in 584 deaths.
Although every death is a tragedy, comparing these numbers with those of other conditions puts them into perspective. For instance, globally, an estimated 59,000 people die from rabies each year.
Approximately 130 people die from an opioid overdose each day in the U.S., and around 150 people die each day from influenza and pneumonia.
In conclusion, although the word “plague” sends shivers running down our spines, this latest outbreak is not a reason to panic.