Madagascar — When most people hear of the bubonic plague they tend to think of the Black Death pandemic that swept through the western world in the Middle Ages, wiping out nearly a quarter of the worlds population.
Black Death plague was the single biggest killer of people across the world from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries, and surprisingly today, the bubonic plague is still a big problem in many parts of the world.
The latest outbreak has occurred in Madagascar, where an even more vicious strain of the plague than the one in the Middle Ages has killed 39 people so far, according to a government statement last Thursday.
A doctor with the government said that 90 percent of the cases seen were pneumonic plague, a strain that is more severe than the common bubonic plague, typically killing victims within three days, leaving little time for antibiotics to work their magic.
Authorities are issuing warnings to anyone with severe fever and headaches to consult a physician as soon as possible. The government said all drugs to treat the plague would be issued free of charge.
There is an epidemic in Madagascar which is currently affecting five districts (out of 112). Eighty-six people have been inflicted by the plague, of which 39 have died, said the health ministry in a statement read to AFP.
According to health ministry, the first person died before November. However, the government did not officially declare the existence of the plague until Nov 23. The outbreak has been blamed on an infestation of rats in residential areas, which has been linked to uncontrolled deforestation in the region. Additionally, many of the island nations prisons are full of rats, especially Antanimora, a facility that houses 3,000 inmates.
According to the Guardian Liberty Voice, the Red Cross has warned that these facilities, many of which are already overcrowded, could lead to an outbreak across the whole country. Both visitors and prison workers run the risk of catching the disease, which could further spread the disease outside of the prison network.
The plague has claimed hundreds of millions of lives since it first became a problem centuries ago. And while antibiotics today are very effective in treating the disease, it is still a significant problem.
The rarer but more deadly pneumonic plague, which can kill quickly if antibiotics are not administered at the very first sign of symptoms, is transmitted to the lungs through tiny droplets that are inhaled. It is one of the most deadly infectious diseases known, with mortality rates that are typically very high, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The WHO and Institut Pasteur are working with Madagascar officials to fight this growing epidemic, which comes at a time when the island nation is hoping to put an end to a four-year political and economic crisis with an upcoming presidential run-off election.
Interestingly enough, this presidential election could be a driving factor causing the plague to have been so ferocious through November.
Jean Claude Rabemanantsoa, head of the countrys forestry department, said that most Madagascans traditionally burn bushes as a form of political protest or to vent their anger against authorities.
Since the country is in a tense presidential election this year, there has been an increase in the number of bush fires, which in turn are driving rats out of the forests and into urban areas, he said in an interview with AFP. Once rats are in place, then comes the plague.
Another problem, Rabemanantsoa noted, is that there is a superstition in Madagascar that smoke triggers rain.
The drought this year has also encouraged bushfires. There are people who believe that if they burn the vegetation, it creates smoke and brings the rain, said Rabemanantsoa to the French news agency.
The plague, which comes from the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is found mainly in rodents, especially in rats, and is passed through infected fleas that bite humans and other animals, passing the infection straight into the bloodstream. While it is common knowledge today that rats are the main vector of the disease, this was not known until 1894. This discovery was made during a more-than-century-long outbreak of the plague in China, which lasted from 1855 to 1959.
With the advent of antibiotics, many have believed that the plague is a thing of the past. However, outbreaks are ongoing throughout Africa and other poor countries, where sanitation falters and antibiotics are hard to come by. Still, this does not mean that rich nations, such as the United States, are not at risk from the disease.
According to the US Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), a human plague outbreak occurred in 13 people in the United States in 2006. Most of the cases were reported in four states, Texas, California, Colorado and New Mexico, which together had six cases. This was the largest outbreak in a single year in the US since 1994. Two of the cases in 2006 ended in death, all others made a full recovery.