- An outbreak of the bubonic plague in China has led to worry that the “Black Death” could make a significant return.
- But experts say the disease isn’t nearly as deadly as it was, thanks to antibiotics.
- The disease pops up every year in multiple countries including the U.S.
Health authorities in China have identified a new case of the bubonic plague, the disease that triggered the “Black Death” pandemic back in the mid-1300s.
The new case, which was confirmed on July 5, was found in a herdsman living in the northern city of Bayannur.
Local health authorities issued a third-level alert, advising people to avoid hunting, eating, or transporting animals that may potentially carry the disease.
The plague diagnosis comes months after the Chinese government announced 3 people had contracted pneumonic plague in the country late last year.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be frightening to imagine another disease spreading across the globe — especially one as infamous as the bubonic plague.
But, fortunately, we’re in the clear.
Unlike COVID-19, we have clear treatments for the bubonic plague. Additionally, the disease is rare with a few cases every year found in the United States.
This means there’s pretty much no chance we’d ever see a pandemic play out like the one in the 14th century.
“Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted,” Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told Healthline in an interview last year.
“We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission,” she said. “We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick.”
Here’s how the plague spreads
The bubonic plague is a serious infection of the lymphatic system, which is caused by bacteria called Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis).
Y. pestis spreads via infected fleas or animals, like rodents, squirrels, or hares, which can be passed to humans who are bitten or scratched.
The plague can cause a range of symptoms such as:
- organ failure
- open sores
If the disease isn’t treated immediately, the bacteria can spread in the bloodstream and cause sepsis, or septicemic plague, Kappagoda explained.
If the bacteria infects the lungs, it can cause pneumonia or pneumonic plague.
Without treatment, the bubonic plague can cause death in up to 60 percent of people who get it, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
But as long as you don’t touch an animal that has the plague bacteria, your chances of getting it are incredibly low.
The plague is extremely rare. Only a couple thousand cases are reported worldwide each year, most of which are in Africa, India, and Peru.
The United States only sees about 7 cases a year, and they’re typically reported in Southwestern states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, where wild rodents carry the bacteria.
“There is transmission of plague among wild rodents only in certain areas of the U.S., and these areas are generally very sparsely populated so there is not much opportunity for humans to come into contact with fleas or animals carrying the plague,” Kappagoda said.
Another reason the plague is so rare is that the bacteria doesn’t survive well in sunlight.
“Y. pestis is easily killed by sunlight. If the bacteria is released into air it can survive for up to1 hour depending on the environmental conditions,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital, said.
Additionally, bubonic and septicemic plagues can’t be passed from person to person, Glatter added.
And although human-to-human transmission can happen with pneumonic plague when someone spreads cough droplets into the air, it’s very rare.
“Person-to-person transmission is less likely since it requires close and direct contact with a person with pneumonic plague,” Glatter said.
It can be cured
Unlike Europe’s disastrous bubonic plague epidemic, the plague is now curable in most cases.
It can successfully be treated with antibiotics, and according to the CDC, treatment has lowered mortality rates to approximately 11 percent.
The antibiotics work best if given within 24 hours of the first symptoms. In severe cases, patients can be given oxygen, intravenous fluids, and breathing support.
“It is critically important to be treated early as a delay in receiving antibiotics increases the risk of dying,” Kappagoda said.
Preventive antibiotics are also given to people who don’t yet have the plague, but have come into contact with an animal or person who does.
So rest assured, the plague isn’t coming back — at least anytime soon. And even if it does, we now have the knowledge and resources to control it.
The bottom line
New cases of the bubonic plague found in China are making headlines. But health experts say there’s no chance a plague epidemic will strike again, as the plague is easily prevented and cured with antibiotics.
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