A herdsman in Bayun Nur, in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China, has been diagnosed with the bubonic plague, causing the Chinese authorities to issue an alert.
It is unclear how the herdsman got infected, but as the Global Times reported another suspected case found in a 15-year-old after contact with a marmot hunted by a dog soon after, it is likely from an infected rodent. Marmots (small, squirrel-like rodents) and other small mammals act as vectors for plague transmission, passing the bacteria onto fleas after being bitten or passing it to humans if the mammal is eaten.
Despite the scary headlines, the bubonic plague is easily treated with modern antibiotics.
The herdsman has been quarantined and is recovering, while news of the 15-year-old is awaiting. In the meantime, China has issued a level 3 alert warning against the hunting or eating of grassland animals. The preventative measures are expected to last until the end of 2020.
Should you be worried?
The bubonic plague, or Black Death, that occurred in the Middle Ages, was the most fatal pandemic in human history after 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa died.
Caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague causes flu-like symptoms of fever, headaches, and vomiting. Untreated, it has a high death rate of up to 90 percent, but common antibiotics like streptomycin and gentamycin can rid the body of Y. pestis quickly.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average of 1,000-2,000 cases of the bubonic plague are reported every year worldwide. In fact, America averages around seven cases a year. What was once a devastating disease now has a 1-15 percent death rate depending on how quickly antibiotics are administered, so in areas with access to healthcare it poses very little threat.
The bubonic plague is mostly found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, and Peru currently, with very few cases found in Western countries.
Despite effective treatment, in more rural areas with high populations of rodents, the bubonic plague could be an issue. "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 in Inner Mongolia said, reports China Daily.
Authorities in China hope to stop the disease in its tracks with quarantine and protective measures before it becomes an epidemic. Although the plague is very infectious, human-to-human transmission is rare according to the World Health Organization (WHO) – so don’t worry, this probably won’t be another disease to panic about this year.