Health officials in China reported on Sunday that there is a suspected case of the bubonic plague, aka the disease that caused the Black Death pandemic, in Inner Mongolia.
The case was detected in Bayannur, and local authorities have issued a citywide warning for local residents, according to Xinhua news agency. Chinese officials are asking residents of Bayannur to be especially cautious to try to minimize the risk of human-to-human transmission and to avoid hunting or eating animals that could cause others to become infected. “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,” local health authorities said, per China Daily.
The patient is thought to have contracted the plague from a marmot, a type of rodent that’s eaten in some parts of China, that has caused plague outbreaks in the area in the past. Now, officials in Bayannur are warning people to steer clear of sick or dead marmots.
People are already panicking on social media over the news, fearing that the plague will be the next COVID-19. But, before you panic, know this: The plague has already been circulating in the U.S. for years — and is unlikely to cause a pandemic.
What is the plague, again?
The plague is a disease caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can affect both humans and mammals, and people often get the plague after being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the bacteria that causes the plague or by handling an animal infected with the disease.
Symptoms of bubonic plague can include a sudden fever, headache, chills and weakness and one or more swollen, tender and painful lymph nodes. The bacteria can spread throughout the body if it’s not treated, the CDC says.
How worried about this should people be?
Not very, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University tells Yahoo Life. The plague is regularly found in the four corners region of the U.S. (the southwestern corner of Colorado, the southeastern corner of Utah, the northeastern corner of Arizona and the northwestern corner of New Mexico), and is usually carried by prairie dogs, he explains. “There are usually a few human cases from there every year,” Watkins says.
There are three forms of the plague, but more than 80 percent of the plague cases in the U.S. have been the bubonic form, according to the CDC. The number of plague cases in the U.S. varies by year but, on average, the CDC says that the country sees between one to 17 cases annually.
While some are worried that the plague will find its way from Bayannur and spread across the globe to the U.S., you shouldn’t panic, Suzanne Willard, a clinical professor and associate dean for global health at the Rutgers School of Nursing, tells Yahoo Life. “There is an anxiety and fear that’s the issue here. People think, ‘Oh my god, something else is coming out of China, China lied about this before, and who can we trust?’” she says. “But none of these diseases like the plague ever went away—you just don’t hear about them often.”
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that there’s “no chance the plague will become the new COVID.” While the plague caused the Black Death pandemic in the Middle Ages, personal hygiene is much better now and the disease is now treated with antibiotics. “We treat it in a very straightforward fashion today if we get it early and it’s well-diagnosed,” Schaffner says.
The plague is still serious, Watkins says — it’s just now easier to contain. “Effective antibiotics are readily available and most people have good outcomes,” he says.
In general, the bubonic plague is “really confined to just a few locations and there very few cases each year,” Schaffner says. “This particular situation will stay in China,” he adds.
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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