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China bubonic plague: Government quarantines 'plague' city

Tiny but deadly: Microscopic view of the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the agent that causes the bubonic plague.
Tiny but deadly: Microscopic view of the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the agent that causes the bubonic plague.
Wikimedia Commons

Reports out of China indicate that parts of the city of Yumen has been sealed off from the rest of the country, quarantined to hopefully protect the nation of nearly 1.4 billion from the bubonic plague. World health experts are at a loss to figure out the government's response to the death of just one man who contracted the dreaded plague.

Agence France-Presse reported (via Yahoo News) July 22 that 151 people had been quarantined, while the perimeter of the city was sealed, closed off by roadblocks, according to the state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV). The state-run television reported that no one was allowed to leave the city and those wanting to enter are being ordered to find alternative routes to their destinations.

LiveScience reported (via Yahoo News) that sealing off Yumen is seen by many health experts as extreme, considering that the man died last week and nobody else has contracted bubonic plague. The dead man, 38, is said to have handled a diseased marmet, a wild rodent that inhabits the region.

The bubonic plague is most often spread by fleas or through direct contact with the tissues or fluids of an animal with plague.

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, believes there may be more to the story, something the Chinese government is not disclosing, because their method of handling the situation seems somewhat extreme.

"I feel there's something here that we don't know, because this seems a very expansive response to just one case," he said, basing his opinion on the limited response actualized in the U. S. when cases pop up from time to time. "I'm very puzzled at the circumstances here, and what the actual hazard is."

Individuals suffering from symptoms of bubonic plague are generally treated with antibiotics. Cases that are not caught early may present difficulties and sometimes result in death, although dying from the plague in modern times is rare.

The World Health Organization estimates between 1,000 and 2,000 cases of bubonic plague are reported each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control's website.

The Chinese government may base their concerns on history and a large population where a runaway disease could very well decimate enormous areas. A two-decade epidemic swept China in the late 1800s, killing upwards of 10 million people, according to It was the last known great outbreak, which is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. The bubonic plague loose in modern China could prove catastrophic.

The bubonic plague is believed to be the major culprit behind the "Black Death" of the 1300s which killed, by some estimates, as many as 60 percent of Europe's population at the time.

CCTV reported that the quarantined city "has enough rice, flour and oil to supply all its residents for up to one month."

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