On Sunday (July 5), a herdsman in Bayannur city, in western Inner Mongolia, was diagnosed with bubonic plague, according to The New York Times. Health authorities said in a statement that the patient is being isolated and is in stable condition at a local hospital.
The case is not all that unusual; indeed, cases of plague crop up from time to time on nearly every continent worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, including a handful of cases that occur each year in the United States. The man was diagnosed with a form of plague that is not spread from person to person.
Still, officials in Bayannur city issued a "third-level alert" (the second lowest in a four-level system) for plague prevention, the Times reported. Residents are being warned not to hunt, eat or transport potentially infected animals, especially marmots, which are known to carry plague in the area. People should also notify authorities if they find any dead or visibly diseased rodents. In addition, to prevent person-to-person transmission of the disease, people should avoid going to crowded places; and the public should report any suspected human cases of plague, the statement said.
Plague is perhaps best known for killing millions of people in Europe in the 1300s during a pandemic called the Black Death. The infection, which is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, still occurs today, although it is relatively rare and usually treatable with common antibiotics. Before the advent of antibiotics, the death rate from plague in the U.S. was about 66%, but today the rate is around 11%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Humans can catch the plague through flea bites or through contact with the tissue or bodily fluids of an infected animal, according to the CDC. In May 2019, a couple in Mongolia died from bubonic plague after consuming raw marmot meat as a folk remedy, Live Science previously reported.
Bubonic plague can cause fever, headache, chills and swollen and painful lymph nodes, called buboes, according to the CDC. This form of plague cannot be spread between people. But if left untreated, the disease may spread to the lungs and lead to pneumonic plague, the only form of plague that can spread from person to person, the CDC says.
In November 2019, two people from Inner Mongolia were diagnosed with pneumonic plague and treated at a hospital in Beijing, the Times reported.
Worldwide, about 1,000 to 2,000 cases of plague are reported every year, according to the CDC. In the U.S., about seven cases of plague occur each year, on average, the CDC says.
Originally published on Live Science.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.