What you need to know about bubonic plague, or ‘Black Death’


BEIJING (KRON) – Local health authorities in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region are on high alert after a suspected case of bubonic plague, the disease that caused the Black Death pandemic, was reported Sunday.

Authorities in the Bayannur district raised the plague warning on Sunday, ordering residents not to hunt wild animals such as marmots and to send for treatment anyone with fever or showing other possible signs of infection.

Plague can be fatal in up to 90% of people infected if not treated, primarily with several types of antibiotics.

According to the World Health Organization, most human cases of plague have occurred in Africa, since the 1990s.

WHO reports the three most endemic countries are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, and Peru. In Madagascar, cases of bubonic plague are reported nearly every year, during the epidemic season (between September and April).

From 2010 to 2015 there were 3248 cases reported worldwide, including 584 deaths, according to WHO.

Here’s what you need to know:

What is bubonic plague?

Plague is a disease that affects both humans and other mammals. Humans typically get plague after being bitten by a rodent flea carrying the plague bacterium – Yersinia pestis – or by handling an animal infected with plague, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports.

At this time, human plague infections happen significantly more in parts of Africa and Asia, but also occur in rural areas in the western United States.

When was the last outbreak?

China has largely eradicated plague, but occasional cases are still reported, especially among hunters coming into contact with fleas carrying the bacterium.

The last major known outbreak was in 2009, when several people died in the town of Ziketan in Qinghai province on the Tibetan Plateau.

How can you catch it?

The plague bacteria can be transmitted to humans via flea bites or contact with contaminated fluid or tissue of a plague-infected animal.

It can also be transmitted via infectious droplets. When a person has plague pneumonia, they may cough droplets containing the plague bacteria into air.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of bubonic plague include:

  • Sudden onset of fever
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Weakness
  • One or more swollen, tender and painful lymph nodes (called buboes)

If the patient is not treated with appropriate antibiotics, the bacteria can spread to other parts of the body.

What happens when you get it?

A person usually becomes sick with bubonic plague anywhere between two and six days after being infected.

Plague can affect the lungs and can also enter the bloodstream, which can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and even death.

How is it diagnosed?

Confirmation of plague requires lab testing.

Is there a treatment or vaccine?

Plague is treatable with commonly available antibiotics, according to the CDC.

The earlier an infected patient seeks medical care and receives treatment, the better their chances for a full recovery.

Antibiotics and supportive therapy are effective against plague if patients are diagnosed in time.

According to the CDC, a plague vaccine is no longer available in the United States.

How can you prevent getting plague?

The CDC has issued the following tips for prevention:

  • Reduce rodent habitats around your home
  • Remove brush, rock piles, junk, cluttered firewood, and possible rodent food supplies
  • Wear gloves if you’re handling or skinning potentially infected animals to prevent diret contact
  • Use repellent if you think you could be exposed to rodent fleas during activities like camping, hiking, or working outdoors
  • Keep fleas off your pets by applying flea control products
  • Do not allow your dog or cat to roam free in endemic areas then sleep on your bed

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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