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Uh oh, there’s bubonic plague in China

Plague-bearer. (AP)
Plague-bearer. (Associated Press)

Police have sealed off the town of Yumen in China's northwestern Gansu province after one resident died of bubonic plague, according to reports. At least 151 people who came into contact with the victim have been kept in quarantine in the town of 30,000, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency. None of those quarantined have reported plague symptoms.

Chinese officials said the 38-year-old man who perished had been in contact with a marmot, a type of wild rodent. He had apparently chopped it up to feed to his dog but then developed a fever the same day. He died in a hospital on July 16.

The plague, a bacterial disease borne by fleas attached to rodents, can be cured, but lack of treatment could lead to a patient dying within 24 hours of contracting it. Yumen has set aside about $160,000 for emergency vaccinations, according to the South China Morning Post. "The city has enough rice, flour and oil to supply all its residents for up to one month," reported Chinese state television.

Gansu is one of China's poorest and most remote provinces. In 2009, in neighboring Qinghai province, 12 people contracted plague and three died in an outbreak. According to World Health Organization statistics, about 1,000 to 3,000 people get the plague every year, including in the United States. The worst-affected regions these days are in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the 14th century, the disease spread from China along Silk Road trade routes and entered Europe, wiping out roughly half the continent's population (and exacting a similar toll in China, according to some accounts). This dark chapter in human history is remembered as the Black Death. In the late 19th century, a newer pandemic, dubbed the Modern Plague, spread from China to the British colonial entrepot of Hong Kong and then to port cities elsewhere. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 million people died as a result.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.



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