The Bubonic plague is back and China is terrified

In the sixth century, along with silks and spices, the bubonic plague traveled along the Silk Road from China all the way to Justinian’s Byzantine Empire and cleared away half his kingdom. In 1347 the bubonic plague wiped out thirty percent Europe’s population. In 1665 the Black Death, as it came to be known, had its deadliest outing yet when it took out one third of Europe’s population. But the worst was yet to come.

Bubonic Plague

Swollen nodes in patients suffering from the plague

In the 1860’s strains of the epidemic started showing in the interiors of China and hit Hong Kong, then one of the most important port trading cities in the world, in 1894. As in previous cases of the plague, rats carried the disease in ships and it transmitted to wherever those vessels docked. This time the epidemic was named The Modern Plague and it killed ten million people across the globe. The plague remained active till 1959 when the World Health Organization reported that the number of deaths had dropped to 200 annually.

Though the bubonic plague has been wreaking havoc on the word for centuries, it was discovered only recently that the virus that spread across the globe originated in China and spread via the Silk Route. And now it is back.

Illustration of the plague in medieval Europe

Illustration of the plague in medieval Europe

Mr. Wang, a thirty eight year old man from Yumen, which lies in the north-western Chinese province of Gansu, died after being diagnosed with the plague. He reportedly contracted the disease after coming in close contact with a marmot, a small rodent. Chinese authorities sealed off parts of the city and quarantined 30,000 residents! The 151 people who came in close contact with the man have been directly quarantined and are being supervised by a medical team.

The plague bacteria Yersinia pestis spreads through rodents and kill a human within 24 hours if not treated immediately. Once the infection reaches the lungs, it spreads through the atmosphere when patients cough.

Yersinia Pestis

The World Health Organizations maintains this to be one of the deadliest infections in the world. Though its outbreak has been rigorously controlled since the Modern Plague, studies estimate that approximately 20,000 people have suffered from the disease from 2000 to 2009. The majority of those affected came from Peru, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Algeria, Malawi, India and Africa. It is mostly in rural areas with limited hygiene and access to the plague antibiotics that it ruled roost. Africa was the worst hit with Congo reporting 10,581 cases, Madagascar with 7182 and 1309 cases in Zambia.

Map large

During the same period, 56 people contracted the disease in USA, of which 7 succumbed. The bubonic plague is most likely to thrive and spread in rural areas where hygiene is tends to be poor and access to anti-microbial drugs are limited. But since it is highly contagious, once the epidemic grips, the outbreak can be extremely difficult to control. As in this case when China is taking no chances.

Since the sixth century and the middle ages, we have made vast strides in medicine and technology. Yet this terrible threat over humanity looms once again. Chinese officials are insisting that the chances of an outbreak from this one incident is very minuscule and they are doing everything in their power to ensure all risks are eliminated. Chances are that they are absolutely right.

But with the terrible water storage conditions in Africa, violent wars and volatile living conditions, lack of access to quality healthcare in rural third world countries world over and a lack of awareness and knowledge makes this a ticking time bomb. We should take China’s example as a dire warning and get to the root of the problem. Else it is only a matter of time before the Black Death strikes again.

History has an annoying habit of repeating itself.


Rakhi Chakraborty

Rakhi Chakraborty

Writer at YourStory. Student of human rights. Thrives on stories, ideas and innovation.