In Depth

Beijing residents fearful after outbreak of plague

Chinese authorities say they have it under control, but citizens fear a lack of transparency might hide a wider contagion

Authorities in Beijing have called for calm after it emerged that two people from Inner Mongolia had been diagnosed with pneumonic plague.

It is a severe bacterial lung infection, and a variant of the Black Death that ravaged Europe during the 14th Century.

The Chinese Center for Disease Control has told citizens to take precautions to protect themselves, while also reassuring them over microblogging social media platform Weibo that there was no need to panic, as the risk of contagion is “extremely low”.

What happened?

The news was initially confirmed late on Tuesday, after the two infected people arrived at a hospital in Beijing’s Chaoyang District. The hospital is normally one of the busiest in the city, but was suddenly empty of patients on Tuesday afternoon, prompting rumours to spread and a frenzy of media interest. A nurse told China’s Global Times the closure was due to a “special situation”.

Chinese state media outlet China Daily repeated the assurances of the authorities that “relevant disease prevention and control measures have been taken”. But this failed to completely quell alarm. 

What was the reaction?

Fanfan Wang, writing in The Wall Street Journal, reports that “much of the public concern was focused on what some online commenters feared was the late disclosure of the disease”.

A now-deleted WeChat post by a doctor at the hospital, Li Jifeng, claimed that the patients were actually first treated on 3 November - over a week before the public was informed of the presence of highly contagious pneumonic plague in the capital.

According to Li’s post, the first person to be infected was a middle-aged man from Inner Mongolia, who had travelled to Beijing on the advice of doctors at his local hospital. At that point he was undiagnosed, and had already suffered from fever and breathing difficulties for ten days before arriving in Beijing. The second patient was the man’s wife, who had been treating him. Their condition deteriorated in Beijing, and Dr Li claimed it took her and other doctors there another week to identify the pathogen.

Of particular concern to the public is how the couple travelled to the capital. If they used public transport, they could have spread pneumonic plague, which is particularly infectious, to many people.

“Chinese censors instructed online news aggregators in China to ‘block and control’ online discussion related to news about the plague,” reports The New York Times. “China has a history of covering up and being slow to announce infectious outbreaks, prompting many people to call for transparency this time.”

One user wrote on Weibo: “The plague is not the most terrifying part. What’s even scarier is the information not being made public.”

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Nevertheless, The World Health Organization (WHO) said it understood that potential contaminations were being investigated and managed. “The [Chinese] National Health Commission are implementing efforts to contain and treat the identified cases and increasing surveillance,” said Fabio Scano, of WHO China.

What is the plague?

Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, and can affect humans in three ways: a blood infection, known as septicemic plague, an infection of the lymph nodes, called bubonic plague, which brings about the Black Death’s infamous boils and gangrene, and a lung infection, known as pneumonic plague.

“The pneumonic form is invariably fatal unless treated early. It is especially contagious and can trigger severe epidemics through person-to-person contact via droplets in the air,” the WHO warns.

Is this the first outbreak?

While news of an outbreak of plague may seem anachronistic, it is not the first time in recent history that China has had to cope with such an event. As recently as May this year, a quarantine was imposed after a couple died of bubonic plague after eating the raw kidney of a marmot - a folk remedy thought to be good for health. This, too, occurred in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia.

In 2014, in the north-western city of Yumen, 30,000 residents were put on lockdown, and 151 were quarantined after a man died of bubonic plague. A total of six people have died in China from the plague since 2014, according to the country’s health commission, while the WHO says that “from 2010 to 2015, there were 3,248 cases reported worldwide, including 584 deaths”.

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