An unprecedented plague outbreak in Madagascar has been raging for weeks, and now at least one respected expert in the field is worried that the virus responsible for the Black Death could reach mainland Africa. The current plague outbreak on the isolated African island of Madagascar began in September, the beginning of the traditional annual “plague season” on the island where the disease is endemic and has already infected at least 1,800 and killed 127 people, making it the worst outbreak in at least five decades. By contrast, Madagascar sees an average of 600 cases of plague in a given year.
As Daily Mail reports, this year’s plague outbreak in Madagascar is so devastating that professor of health protection at the world-renowned University of East Anglia Paul Hunter is predicting that the disease could jump to mainland Africa in the very near future. According to Hunter, the outbreak has reached a crisis point, and public health and government officials in South Africa, Seychelles, La Reunion, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Comoros, and Mauritius have been warned to brace for the worst by the World Health Organization (WHO), which has placed the African nations on “high alert.”
“The big anxiety is that it could spread to mainland Africa, it’s not probable, but certainly possible, that might then be difficult to control. If we don’t carry on doing stuff here, at one point something will happen and it will get out of hand control cause huge devastation all around the world.”
In the 14th century, the bubonic plague, colloquially known as the “Black Death,” was responsible for 100 million deaths worldwide. Transmitted by the bites of rat fleas, the Yersinia pestis bacteria is highly communicable. Untreated, it can infect the lungs and become “pneumonic plague,” which requires only airborne transmission via coughing, sneezing, or spitting, and kill within 24 hours. This year’s Madagascar plague outbreak has been dominated by airborne pneumonic plague, which has made up two-thirds of all plague cases. Pneumonic plague is known as the “deadliest and most rapid form of plague.”
Bubonic plague is transmitted by the bites of rat fleas and is endemic to Madagascar. Unusual weather conditions on the island, largely fueled by 2016’s “Godzilla” El Nino, have been blamed for this year’s unprecedented plague outbreak. Included among the weather phenomenon have been forest fires, which have driven rats into human-populated areas of the island.
In response to the plague outbreak on Madagascar, the World Bank has released $5 million in funds in an attempt to put an end to the devastating outbreak. The money is earmarked for use towards bringing health professionals to the island to battle the deadly disease, as well as the disinfection of buildings and the fueling of medical transport vehicles.
According to the Daily Mail, if current infection rates and trends continue, the Madagascar plague outbreak of 2017 could infect another 20,000 victims in a matter of weeks.
Called primarily a “disease of the poor” by Professor Johnjoe McFadden, this year’s predominantly pneumonic plague outbreak in Madagascar has the potential of causing serious loss of life if it continues to spread, as the disease is highly contagious and can be deadly even if treated. What’s more, Professor McFadden claims that residents of largely impoverished Madagascar often “need to walk more than a day to receive proper medical treatment,” potentially exposing more victims to the deadly plague.
“It’s a terrible disease. It’s broadly caused more deaths of humans than anything else, it’s a very deadly pathogen. It is a disease of poverty where humans are being forced to live very close to rats and usually means poor sewage and poor living conditions. That’s the root cause of why it’s still a problem in the world. If we got rid of rats living close enough to mankind then we wouldn’t have the disease.”
An annual Madagascar tradition, which took place on Wednesday, could potentially worsen the plague outbreak on the African island, aid workers have warned. All Saints Day, otherwise known as the “Day of the Dead,” falls on November 1 and sees Madagascar natives gathering at cemeteries and even sometimes removing the deceased from vaults and dancing with their remains. Also known as Famadihana, local rules of the annual celebration dictate that plague victims cannot be buried in a tomb that can be reopened.
Even so, experts fear that the celebration may contribute to this year’s unprecedented plague outbreak and worry that celebrations and traditions could make a potentially dire situation worse.
In response to this year’s bubonic plague outbreak, many Madagascar schools and universities have faced extended closures to help prevent the spread of the disease. School buildings have also been sprayed with insecticide to help curtail the outbreak. Despite the best efforts of the government and aid workers, this year’s plague outbreak has spread beyond its traditional rural reach to Madagascar’s most populous cities, Antananarivo and Toamasina. According to experts, the greater population density could allow the plague to spread quicker and more easily.
International aid agencies have donated over 1 million doses of antibiotics to Madagascar to help them fight this year’s plague outbreak, as well as tens of thousands of respiratory masks to help prevent the spread of the super deadly pneumonic plague.
The annual Madagascar plague season still has six months left in its cycle, which traditionally ends in April. Even so, more than triple the average annual plague cases have already been reported on the island. While Madagascar director of health Dr. Manitra Rakotoarivony has publicly claimed that the current outbreak has peaked and is dwindling, World Health Organization (WHO) figures seem to contradict that claim.
“There is an improvement in the fight against the spread of the plague, which means that there are fewer patients in hospitals.”
According to a previous statement issued by a WHO official, the current Madagascar plague “epidemic” has pulled ahead of efforts to curtail and treat the deadly disease. What’s more, the outbreak began in multiple small towns, and that was just the start.
“The risk of the disease spreading is high at national level… because it is present in several towns and this is just the start of the outbreak.”
Because of the nature of this year’s outbreak, many have expressed fears that the Madagascar plague outbreak could be spread and worsened by air and sea travel. Experts, however, claim that the risk of spread in this manner is low due to widely implemented screening protocols. Even so, some remain petrified that flights and ferries between Madagascar and mainland Africa could facilitate the spread of plague and a widening of the current deadly and largely pneumonic-variety outbreak.
According to Dr. Ashok Chopra, of the University of Texas, this year’s plague outbreak in Madagascar has yet to peak, and the incubation period of the deadly diseases leaves the potential for a more widespread situation wide open.
“If they are travelling shorter distances and they’re still in the incubation period, and they have the pneumonic (form) then they could spread it to other places. We don’t want to have a situation where the disease spreads so fast it sort of gets out of control.”
What do you think about this year’s Madagascar plague outbreak? Do you believe that the world could be on the brink of a devastating Black Death situation, or is it more likely that the current situation will simply fizzle out? Let us know in the comments section below.
[Featured Image by Alexander JOE/AP Images]