All About ‘Black Death’ Bubonic Plague In China

On July 4, Bayannur, a city in northern China, was on high alert after a suspected case of Bubonic plague was reported. Authorities in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region announced a level III warning of plague prevention and control, according to sources. The local authorities also declared that as the plague has the risk of spreading, the warning period will be maintained until the end of the year. The herdsman who contacted the disease is currently stable in hospital.

Reaction of WHO:

However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that it is not a high-risk situation. WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said, “Bubonic Plague has been with us and is always with us, for centuries. We are looking at the case numbers in China. It’s well managed. At the moment, we are not considering it high risk, but we are watching it, monitoring it carefully.”

The Bubonic Plague, which has a history of being one of the most feared diseases in the past, is no more a deadly disease in today’s world. The plague had caused the devastating Black Death in medieval Europe and has infected Asian and African countries repeatedly, but since the mid-20th century, it had largely been contained with the advancement of medicine.

'Black Death' Bubonic Plague in China
Source: Flickr

Measures Adopted by Authorities:

The state-run Xinhua news agency reported two confirmed cases of the Bubonic plague from Western Mongolia’s Khovd Province on July 1. The cases were of brothers (27-year old and 17-year old) who had consumed marmot meat. Around 146 people have been detected and isolated for further treatment, who had been in contact with the brothers. Infected marmot meat is a known transmission route of the plague, and therefore, Russian officials are warning the communities residing in the country’s Altai region, not the hunt and consume marmots.

Chinese health officials have banned the hunting, skinning and transportation of rodents that are likely to be carriers of the Yersinia pestis bacteria.

The municipal government raised the alert level by one notch to “standard plague outbreak alert”, meaning that humans have been infected. Authorities have instructed the public to improve self-protection awareness and ability, and report any abnormal health conditions for immediate diagnosis. Spotting of sick or dead marmots must also be brought under the attention of authorities.

The residents of Beijing have been urged not to go camping in Inner Mongolia, which is a famous tourist destination for its vast strip of scenic grassland and desert. There are chances of a human plague epidemic outbreak in the city as the disease may have been circulating locally for a long time. China has reported five cases of the disease associated with some of the deadliest pandemics in human history, over the course of last year.

Bubonic Plague and its Symptoms:

The Bubonic Plague is a bacterial infection transmitted by rodents like mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels and fleas who have bitten these infected rodents. It can also spread from human-to-human contact; that is, it is a zoonotic disease.

The estimated basic reproduction number (RO) of the plague stands between 5-7, which means that one infected person is capable of affecting 5-7 other people. It is a large count compared to the RO of COVID-19 which lies in between 1 and 2.

Except for the Oceania continent, the disease is present on all other continents. The bacteria causing Bubonic Plague, Yersinia pestis, also causes Pneumonic Plague and Septicaemic Plague, having the potential to kill an adult within 24 hours, if left untreated (case fatality ratio of 30-60 per cent).

Common symptoms include swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpit and groin which can become as large as chicken eggs (buboes, from which the name ‘Bubonic’ is derived), chills, coughs, fever, fatigue, nausea, muscle ache, etc. The incubation period of the bacteria is around one week.

Historical Significance:

The Bubonic plague or ‘Black Death’ broke out between 1347 and 1351, killing one-third of the European population. It originated in China, travelled along the Mongol Empire’s flourishing trade routes through ships, and reached parts of the Mediterranean.

The Black Death killed about 50 million people across Asia, Africa and Europe. A fifth of London’s population perished during the Great Plague of 1665, over 12 million people were killed across India and China in the 19th-century outbreak. The Great Manchurian Plague of 1910, broke out in northeastern China from infected marmots, killing over 63,000 people.

'Black Death' Bubonic Plague in China
Source: Wikipedia


The introduction of antibiotics has dramatically reduced the chances of succumbing to the plague. Recent outbreaks in Madagascar reported around 300 confirmed cases, out of which only 30 died. The WHO has categorized it as a reemerging disease which though curable, cannot be eliminated.

Over 1000-2000 people contact it every year, but it is improbable to become an epidemic.

Aishani Sarkar

An ardent literature lover with my mind constantly travelling through far-off unexplored worlds. A lover of languages and cultures--the sweetest language in the world being my mother-tongue. Chasing the Northern Lights...taking one step closer. My pen is my sword. #BongAtHeart

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