Mongolia has quarantined a region n bordering China after an outbreak of the bubonic plague, an infamous disease better known by many as the “Black Death” that killed millions in Europe through the Middle Ages.

Two suspected cases of the plague – which is linked to the consumption of marmot meat – have been identified, health experts announced on Wednesday.

Lab tests confirmed that two unidentified individuals had contracted the illness in the region of Khovd, Mongolia’s National Center for Zoonotic Disease (NCZD) said in a statement.

The provincial capital in western Mongolia is now in quarantine.

According to local media, vehicles have been banned from entering the area temporarily.

The NCZD analysed samples from 146 different people who may have had contact with the two individuals infected.

In addition 504 second-contact individuals were identified.

While worrisome, several factors mitigate the potential threat of this disease. To begin with, Mongolian marmots are a reservoir for the bacterium Yersinia pestis that causes the disease plague (which takes three primary forms: pneumonic, septicemic, and bubonic), so this development is not at all unusual.

In fact, some believe the devastating 1348 pandemic might have its origins on the Mongolian plains:

The strain of Y. pestis emerges in Mongolia, according to John Kelly’s account in The Great Mortality. It is possibly passed to humans by a tarabagan, a type of marmot. The deadliest outbreak is in the Mongol capital of Sarai, which the Mongols carry west to the Black Sea area.

Mongol King Janiberg and his army are in the nearby city of Tana when a brawl erupts between Italian merchants and a group of Muslims. Following the death of one of the Muslims, the Italians flee by sea to the Genoese outpost of Caffa and Janiberg follow on land. Upon arrival at Caffa, Janiberg’s army lays siege for a year but they are stricken with an outbreak. As the army catapults the infected bodies of their dead over city walls, the under-siege Genoese become infected also.

Both sides in the siege are decimated and survivors in Caffa escape by sea, leaving behind streets covered with corpses being fed on by feral animals. One ship arrives in Constantinople, which, once infected, loses as much as 90 percent of its population.

Not only is the development not unusual (unlike the sweeping mystery pneumonia of Wuhan), the plague can be successfully treated with an array of antibiotics. Interestingly, an average of 7 people in the US contract this disease annually from America’s rodent population.

United States was 66%. Antibiotics greatly reduced mortality, and by 1990-2010 overall mortality had decreased to 11%. Plague can still be fatal despite effective antibiotics, though it is lower for bubonic plague cases than for septicemic or pneumonic plague cases. It is hard to assess the mortality rate of plague in developing countries, as relatively few cases are reliably diagnosed and reported to health authorities.

While the disease is usually transmitted via flea-bites, human-to-human infections are known for the pneumonic form of the disease. In November, Beijing officials said two people from Inner Mongolia were found to have this form of plague.

One has to wonder as to why Mongolia took such dramatic action, given that the disease is well understood and treatments are readily available. Does China want more control over the semi-autonomous region? Do Chinese leaders wish to spook Americans with fears of a deadly pandemic?

Or has China had another “lab accident“?

For those of you interested in “gross science,” here is a great video explaining the plague and how California’s ground squirrels managed to close Yosemite National Park campsites.


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