Chinese Delay Reporting Pneumonic Plague Victims: Why?

Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that cause plague, survives on fleas that live on rodents, like rats and rabbits. ( STEVE GSCHMEISSNER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY)

Health Editor’s Note: I have been following the issue of plague being diagnosed in what has become three people in China.  A husband and wife were diagnosed with pneumonic plague which is spread by respiratory droplets, just like the common cold and flu. What is troubling about this diagnosis of this highly contagious disease is that Chinese medical officials did not immediately announce the diagnosis. The couple were diagnosed a whole 9 days before the announcement of pneumonic plague diagnosis was made. This form of plague is treatable with antibiotics but if left untreated will be fatal.  The plague has wiped out millions of humans in the past decades. This is not the first time China has drug its feet about reporting a disease.  Remember the SARS outbreak in 2003?

Three Cases of Plague Diagnosed in China

by Brigit Katz/

Three cases of plague have been diagnosed in China, sparking widespread fears about the spread of the disease, though officials say the risk of an outbreak is low.

As Emily Feng reports for NPR, the first cases came to light last week, when authorities in Beijing announced that two infected individuals sought treatment at a hospital in the capital. The patients, a husband and wife, are from Inner Mongolia, an autonomous and sparsely populated region in the northern part of the country. They were diagnosed with pneumonic plague, one of the two main forms of infection caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis—the other being bubonic plague, which can advance to pneumonic plague if the infection spreads to the lungs. Yersinia pestis, per the WHO, is often found in small mammals and their fleas.

Pneumonic plague is the most deadly form of the disease. It is highly contagious, spreading from person to person via infected respiratory droplets. Without medical intervention, the disease is inevitably fatal. But recovery rates are high if it is detected and treated with antibiotics within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms.

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