News & Politics

China Imposes Quarantine to Fight the Black Death as Bubonic Plague Reported in Inner Mongolia

London Archaeology photo shows skeletons in the East Smithfield Cemetery in London, where Black Death victims were buried in the 14th Century. Scientists used skeletons from this graveyard to decode the genome of the plague. (AP Photo/Museum of London Archaeology)

First coronavirus, then murder hornets, now bubonic plague?! Authorities in China have responded to one confirmed case of the black death and another suspected case. Both cases emerged in the semi-autonomous region of Inner Mongolia.

According to Chinese Communist Party reports, a herdsman in Bayannur contracted bubonic plague and is in quarantine and in stable condition, the BBC reported. Officials also said they were investigating a second case.

That case involves a 15-year-old patient who came down with a fever after close contact with a marmot hunted by a dog.

Chinese officials issued a level-3 alert, forbidding the hunting and eating of animals that could carry plague and calling on the public to report suspected cases. The alert will last throughout the rest of 2020.

Wait, isn’t bubonic plague the black death?

Bubonic plague, caused by a bacterial infection, launched one of the deadliest epidemics in human history. The black death killed about 50 million people across Africa, Asia, and Europe in the 1300s. Other large outbreaks followed, with one wave killing about a fifth of London’s population during the Great Plague of 1665. More than 12 million people died in outbreaks during the 1800s in China and India.

Today, however, doctors easily treat the bubonic plague using antibiotics. If untreated, however, the disease has a 30-60 percent fatality rate. Symptoms include high fever, chills, nausea, weakness, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpit, or groin.

While much remains unclear about the coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, the bubonic plague is well understood by modern medicine. This makes an outbreak far less likely.

Even though an outbreak in Madagascar involved more than 300 cases in 2017, a study in The Lancet found that fewer than 30 people died.

So what happened?

While it remains unclear how the man with the confirmed case of bubonic plague became infected, it is likely he contracted it through contact with a marmot. Last May, two people in Mongolia died of the bubonic plague. They contracted the disease after eating the raw meat of a marmot, the same type of rodent the teenager came in contact with.

Unless there is a hidden black market in raw marmot meat that spreads from Mongolia across the world, it seems extremely unlikely this particular case of black death will cause an epidemic.

“Unlike in the 14th Century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted,” Dr. Shanti Kappagoda, an infectious diseases doctor at Stanford Health Care, told Healthline last November. “We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. 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.”

China may have overreacted to this case of the black death in part because Inner Mongolia is a semi-autonomous region, and China appears to be cracking down on semi-autonomous regions recently. Also, China faces a deluge of criticism over its coronavirus malfeasance, so Beijing likely wanted to cover its bases, just in case.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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