Two individuals, a married couple in China, have been diagnosed with “pneumonic plague,” according to international reports — a strain of the plague “more infectious than the strain that ravaged Europe in the Dark Ages.”
According to Chinese state-run media, per Canada’s National Post, “doctors in Beijing confirmed that the patients, from China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, were infected with pneumonic plague.” The two individuals who contracted the disease are receiving treatment at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing.
The pair contracted the disease near their home in Inner Mongolia, making them the second such couple to have contracted the plague in that general region since May, when a Mongolian couple died from eating raw organ meat from an infected marmot, CNN reports. The husband contracted the disease first and was nursed by the wife until she also fell ill.
“Plague, caused by bacteria and transmitted through flea bites and infected animals, can develop in three different forms. Bubonic plague causes swollen lymph nodes, while septicemic plague infects the blood and pneumonic plague infects the lungs,” CNN continues. “Pneumonic — the kind the Chinese patients have — is more virulent and damaging. Left untreated, it is always fatal, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).”
Most victims of the bubonic plague catch the disease from infected parasites, typically fleas or body lice. The “pneumonic plague,” which can be an advanced form of the bubonic plague, is transmitted from person to person, according to the WHO, and has a 24 hour incubation period, during which it targets a person’s lungs and respiratory system.
There are typically several incidents of the plague each year in China — and even a couple in the United States — and most do not result in outbreaks like the one that killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe and Asia in the mid-1300s. The disease, the WHO says, lives on in low levels in rodent populations, and circulates among animals that live alongside humans, including cats and dogs, so its difficult to eradicate completely.
“From 2010 to 2015, more than 3,248 cases were reported worldwide, including 584 deaths, according to the WHO. The three most endemic countries are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, and Peru,” CNN reports.
While researchers are developing a vaccine, there is currently no blanket preventative measure for the disease, aside from using DEET-based insect repellents.
In this case, though, such numbers do little to quash concerns that China could be dealing with an actual outbreak, particularly given that Chinese state-run media wouldn’t acknowledge an out-of-hand situation. The mere fact that the Chinese government is acknowledging two incidents of the pneumonic plague seemed to set off alarm bells on social media, particularly among watchdogs of Chinese current events.
UPI notes that “Chinese authorities have previously reported cases of the bubonic plague. In 2009, there were 12 confirmed cases of the plague; three people died. The following year, China claimed seven confirmed cases of the plague and two deaths. In 2014, there were three confirmed cases of the plague, and three people dead from the fatal disease, according to Chinese government statistics.”