Technology & Science

Pneumonic plague prompts Chinese to flee town

Residents of a town in western China where three people have died of pneumonic plaque said Tuesday that some people are fleeing a lockdown imposed by authorities trying to prevent spread of the disease.

Residents of a town in central China where three people have died of pneumonic plague said Tuesday that some individuals are fleeing a lockdown imposed by authorities trying to prevent spread of the disease.

Ziketan, a town of 10,000 people in Qinghai province 2,000 km west of Beijing, has been quarantined after at least a dozen people caught the lung infection.

Two residents reached by The Associated Press said people ran off Monday night after they heard a third person had died of pneumonic plague.

It was unclear if those fleeing had made it past police checkpoints that residents said have been set up in a 28-kilometre radius around Ziketan.

The town was being disinfected and rodents and insects that carry the Yersinia pestis bacteria that cause the disease were being killed, according to a notice on the provincial health department's website.

Pneumonic plague is caused by the same bacterium that causes bubonic plague, which wiped out a third of Europe's population in the 14th century.

Rodent control most important

Pneumonic plague occurs when the bacteria infect the lungs, and can spread from person to person through the air, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It is curable if treated early with antibiotics.

The most important thing to do is control the rodent and flea populations that carry the bacteria, said Dr. Donald Low, chief microbiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

The rodents must have got into the homes of those who've fallen sick, said Low, but walling off the town might be "a bit of overkill."

Instead, Low recommended informing residents and physicians in the area about what signs and symptoms to be looking for in people coming to hospital.

If misdiagnosed and left untreated, the lung infection can kill within 24 hours.

There are about a dozen cases of plague in North America every year, predominately in California, New Mexico and Colorado, where the bacteria are still endemic in some rodent populations, Low noted. 

In 2006, a WHO report from an international meeting on plague cited a Chinese government disease expert as saying that most cases of the plague in China's northwest occur when hunters are contaminated while skinning infected animals. 

Worldwide, thousands of plague cases are reported each year, mostly in Africa. Between 1998 and 2008, nearly 24,000 cases were reported, including about 2,000 deaths, in Africa, Asia, the Americas and eastern Europe.  

In medieval times, scientists did not recognize how bubonic plague was transmitted and there were no treatments. Fleas infested rodents and spread disease through cities that lacked public hygiene.

With files from The Associated Press