Most of us will have studied the plague (otherwise known as the ‘Black Death’) at school. It was a pandemic that spread throughout Europe, wiping out around 50 million people as it went, during the 13th and 14th centuries. Sound familiar? Well, according to health warnings issued by nine different countries across Africa, it looks like it’s back.
The disease has been detected in Madagascar, an island off the southeast coast of Africa where, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there have been 1,297 suspected, probable and confirmed cases of the plague reported – particularly within major cities – and 124 deaths since August. 846 of the cases have been classified as pneumonic plague, with 270 being confirmed as bubonic plague. The rest are unspecified.
Bubonic plague affects the lymph nodes, leaving sufferers with painful, swollen ‘buboes’, whereas pneumonic plague affects the lungs and can be transmitted via droplets (from coughing and sneezing) among humans. While the bubonic plague is the more common strain, the pneumonic is more severe, killing anyone who goes untreated.
The fear is that with air travel and sea trade the disease could easily spread from Madagascar to various other countries, including some popular holiday destinations. As a result, nine territories have issued warnings to their people and prospective visitors, as well as preparing themselves as possible targets for the disease.
Those territories are:
- La Réunion (France)
- South Africa
The danger of the plague is that it’s possible for it to spread while still in the ‘incubation period’, which can last anywhere between one and seven days, and is when the infection has embedded itself in a person’s system but the symptoms have not yet started to show.
Dr. Charlotte Ndiaye, WHO Representative in Madagascar, said in a statement:
“Plague is curable if detected in time. Our teams are working to ensure that everyone at risk has access to protection and treatment. The faster we move, the more lives we save.”
“WHO is concerned that plague could spread further because it is already present in several cities and this is the start of the epidemic season, which usually runs from September to April… Our teams are on the ground in Madagascar providing technical guidance, conducting assessments, supporting disease surveillance, and engaging with communities.”
Symptoms of plague include the sudden onset of fever, chills, head and body aches, weakness, vomiting and nausea. If left untreated, pneumonic plague can be fatal within 18 to 24 hours of disease onset.
Although medicine has undoubtedly advanced a lot since the 13th and 14th centuries, it’s obviously still pretty worrying that a disease this infectious may take hold again – especially when coupled with the NHS’s recent warnings about a potential antibiotic ‘apocalypse’.
However, WHO explains that antibiotics and supportive therapy are effective against plague if patients are diagnosed in time. Indeed, a report from the UN states that 780 individuals have been cured of their infection since August 1 and six of the affected districts have not reported new cases for 15 days – suggesting that the disease is being successfully contained.