Although Russia, Roy Moore, and Rocket Man have been dominating the news cycle recently, there actually are other things happening in the world. For instance, bubonic plague has been spreading across the island nation of Madagascar since August, having already claimed 165 lives. The disease known as the Black Death, which wiped out half of Europe in the 14th century, is back and carving out a swath of devastation in one of the most biodiverse locales on the planet. With the entire world sliding back into the Dark Ages socially and politically, it makes sense that a Medieval disease has reappeared to menace us once more.
As of last week, 2,000 people on Madagascar were infected with plague. A majority of the cases were of the pneumonic variety, a much more damaging version of the disease. Whereas bubonic plague is carried by infected fleas and rats, pneumonic plague infects the lungs, meaning the sickness can be passed from person to person by coughing or sneezing. So how did this rare pulmonary form of plague spread in the first place? Early on in the outbreak, one infected patient traveled from the outlying rural areas to seek treatment, thus jump-starting the infection, and illustrating just how quickly and easily a pandemic can start.
Experts have also pointed to a local tradition as a possible culprit in the spread of plague. Known as famadihana, meaning “the turning of the bones” or “body turning,” the tradition involves, quite literally, dancing with the dead. Families dig up the bones of deceased loved ones, wrap them in fresh cloth, and dance with the remains to honor their ancestors. Health officials warn that if a person died of pneumonic plague, the bacteria can be released and spread by exhuming the corpse. Local residents aren’t necessarily convinced of the danger, claiming that the Madagascar government is lying about plague in order to receive financial aid from the international community. I didn’t know Madagascar had so many fans of Infowars.
The good news is the spread of pneumonic plague is on the downturn. CNN reports that “between October 30 and November 3, there were 41 new cases and three deaths — a significant decline from 238 cases and 12 deaths the week before.” Early detection and treatment is essential, as pneumonic plague can kill patients within the first 12-24 hours. Quick and decisive action from a variety of healthcare organizations, including the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Doctors without Borders, helped stem the tide. That being said, the threat is not over. Nine neighboring African nations and territories are on alert, and officials are still concerned about the disease’s rapid spread. Although unlikely, the possibility of a traveler or aid worker bringing pneumonic plague to the United States or Western Europe is very real. And this news comes at a time when the Trump Administration is proposing sweeping cuts to American foreign aid, including a $2.2 billion cut in global health spending.
There’s no doubt we’ve seen plenty of troubling news in the United States recently. It can be easy to lose sight of global issues in the midst of this domestic strife. But the re-emergence of a Medieval epidemic should serve as a reminder that there’s a wide world outside our borders – one that’s well worth our attention, too.