Madagascar is no stranger to small outbreaks of the bubonic plague, a disease which once brought swift death throughout Europe. The disease is spread through flea bites, and is now treatable with antibiotics.
But in Madagascar, the number of cases this year suddenly grew quickly, and the disease started spreading in a more serious form, NPR reports. If the bubonic plague is not treated, it causes pneumonic plague, which is more severe and advances rapidly. It is always fatal if ignored, and passes from person to person.
Government officials said in October,
This epidemic is our common enemy. We must conquer it.
In just three months, the World Health Organization estimated that over 2,000 fell ill, 171 of whom died. In 2015 and 2016, the country only saw around 300 cases each year.
On the bright side, the WHO said that new cases and hospitalizations are going down. The last confirmed cases of the bubonic plague were in late October. To some extent, a disaster was averted, officials say.
Hilary Bower, an epidemiologist who spent a month in Madagascar as part of the UK Public Health Rapid Support Team, said, “Pulmonary plague can spread very quickly and very easily.”
The plague swept through Madagascar, including in the cities where facilities and authorities were not prepared, as most bubonic plague cases happen in rural areas.
As a response, treatment centers added staff members, and responders conducted extensive tracing to break the chain of contact. Health workers also tracked down around 7,000 people who had interacted with suspected plague patients, 95% of whom took antibiotics as a precaution.
Experts say it was awareness and alertness that helped contain the plague and bring it down to manageable levels. Despite “encouraging signs,” the WHO says that it “expects more cases of plague to be reported” in the next few months.
Plague season in Madagascar usually ends in April.