In the past week, Chinese health officials have confirmed three cases of the plague – one bubonic, two pneumonic. While the latest case saw a man from Inner Mongolia contract bubonic plague – which wiped out half of Europe in the 14th century – experts are more concerned about the pneumonic plague. This is because the latter is “substantially more fatal” and much more contagious.
Bubonic plague sees swelling of the lymph nodes throughout the body. However, pneumonic plague infects the lungs, making the disease airborne and much easier to transfer.
Paul Hunter, Professor of Health Protection at the University of East Anglia, told Express.co.uk: “The worrying thing about the Chinese cases is that two are pneumonic plague. If you’re bitten by a flea, typically you’ll get bubonic plague where it is in the lymph nodes and they swell and then discharge.
“In pneumonic plague it goes to the lungs and then you start coughing it up.
“And the scary thing about pneumonic plague is that it is substantially more fatal untreated and has a much higher mortality rate.
“You can spread it person to person as you’re coughing, the bacteria then drifts in the air and then people inhale it.
“Most cases of the plague these days are bubonic form and they don’t really spread from person to person. But with the people in Beijing, they had the pneumonic form.”
However, Prof Hunter added there is no need to panic, with the cases already being quarantined.
The pneumonic plague is just one of three diseases caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium.
Yersinia pestis also causes bubonic plague – otherwise known as the ‘black death – which affects lymph nodes, and septicemic plague, which affects the blood.
Of the three plague variants, pneumonic is the most virulent and is fatal if left untreated.
In the 14th century the Black Death spread across the Mediterranean and Europe, killing up to 60 percent of Europe’s total population.
More than 100 million people may have perished – reducing the world population from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million.
According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the US, the plague is treatable with antibiotics.
The CDC advises the earlier people seek treatment, the more likely it is they will make a full recovery.
Those who come into close contact with plague victims may need preventative antibiotic therapy.
In the 21st century, the plague is endemic to select regions of the planet.
Three countries where the plague still circulates are the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Madagascar, and Peru.
Isolated cases often also spring up in the US, with up to a dozen people diagnosed annually.