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China reports 2 new cases of black plague after deaths earlier this year

Beijing Haidian Hospital. (AddisWang/Wikimedia Commons)
November 14, 2019

China has reported two cases of the “black plague” or “black death” originating in the province of inner Mongolia.

On Tuesday, Chinese authorities confirmed two patients from the Mongolian autonomous region in northern China contracted pneumonic plague and had been transported to Beijing’s Chaoyang District to undergo medical treatment, CNN reported. Authorities say they have added measures to prevent the disease from spreading.

The recent case follows another incident in Mongolia in May where a couple contracted bubonic plague after eating the raw liver of a marmot, a local folk health ritual. The couple reportedly died from their cases of bubonic plague.

The black plague began to scour Europe in the mid-1300s and, caused an estimated 50 million deaths.

The plague actually encompasses three distinct types of disease, including bubonic plague, septicemic plague and pneumonic plague as in this most recent case. Bubonic plague manifests through swollen lymph nodes. Septicemic plague is an infection of the lungs. Pneumonic plague infects the lungs.

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Untreated bubonic plague can also turn into pneumonic plague if allowed to go untreated for a long enough time. The pneumonic plague then results in rapid onset pneumonia as bacteria infects the lungs.

Pneumonic plague is considered the most virulent and destructive of the three types of plague. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), pneumonic plague is considered to always be fatal.

People typically contract the plague after being bitten by fleas commonly found on the backs of rodents. If a cat or dog has contracted the plague, they can also spread it to their owner. Human borne body lice and fleas may also play a key role in the transmission of the disease.

There is no vaccine for the plague but with the advent of antibiotics, the various types of the black plague have been rendered treatable if caught early. The disease has largely receded from the concern of health officials, but it has not been fully eliminated.

Between 2010 and 2015, some 3,248 plague cases were reported worldwide, including 584 fatal cases. The three worst countries for plague cases are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, and Peru.

The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention has seen a few dozen cases of plague or fewer on average each year. In 2015, two people from Colorado reportedly contracted a strain of plague and died. There were eight more cases of plague in Colorado in 2014.

With a reported estimate of 50,000 human cases in the past 20 years, the WHO considers the plague strains to be a re-emerging disease.

DEET based insect repellent can help prevent flea bites. People can also help prevent the spread of potential plague cases by keeping their pets away from rodent habitats and reporting and reporting sick or dead animals to animal control officials.