The grim fact of the pandemic we’re all living through has led to a renewed interest in plagues from bygone times: how they progressed, their social impact, how people survived, and so forth. Given our present stresses, one could be forgiven for believing such blights were firmly behind us, but it isn’t entirely so.
On Monday, the New York Times reported that, according to health officials, a herdsman in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, in the city of Bayannur, northwest of Beijing, has been diagnosed with bubonic plague, the disease that caused the Black Death in the Middle Ages. The Bayannur city health commission that said the case was confirmed on Monday and that the man has been hospitalized and is in stable condition.
The city government said it has issued protective measures to be in place through the end of the year. The health commission implemented an alert in the region asking residents to report any dead or diseased rodents and advising them against hunting, eating, and transporting any animals that might be infected, especially marmots. A local health authority said in the state-run newspaper China Daily, “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.”
Bubonic plague is a bacterial infection caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium and is commonly transmitted through bites from fleas that have fed off the blood of infected rodents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Transmission, people can also come down with plague after being in contact with infected tissues or fluid or by inhaling respiratory droplets; the latter mode of infection is known as pneumonic plague, the most deadly form of the illness. Because bubonic plague can be treated with antibiotics, the mortality rate of infected individuals has decreased in the modern era to 11 percent. The mortality rate is 30 to 60 percent if the disease is left untreated.
While plague is rare, it’s hardly unheard of, including in the United States, where there have been 1,006 confirmed cases between 1900 and 2012, according to the CDC. Worldwide, an average of between 1,000 and 2,000 cases are reported to the World Health Organization each year.