No need to panic about bubonic plague yet, says expert

2016-04-06 20:46
(File, AFP)

(File, AFP)

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Johannesburg – There was no need for Johannesburg residents to panic about an imminent plague, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said.

Associate professor at the Centre for Opportunistic, Tropical and Hospital Infections at the NICD, John Frean, said measures had been put in place to control potential spread.

This followed the discovery of bubonic plague antibodies in one of the rats found in an informal settlement called Mayibuye in Tembisa, east of Johannesburg last month.

The NICD, with Environmental Health Services, made the discovery on March 16 after collecting samples for a monitoring programme that tests for various rodent-borne diseases. 

Thirteen rats were collected from the informal settlement, and one of them tested positive for plague antibodies.

No need to panic

On Wednesday, Frean said it was still too early to suspect that a widespread plague was imminent. "There is no evidence of a widespread plague, people should not panic," he said, adding that measures had been put in place to control any potential spread.

The health department's environmental health service had instituted flea control by spraying insecticides in the settlement where the rodent was found, he said.

There were increased efforts to catch more rodents and send them to the NICD for testing as well intensified rodent control measures through trapping and poisoning.

"And that is the correct response to prevent any further spread to humans," Frean said.

More rural than urban

According to the World Health Organisation, plague is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. It is usually spread between rats by bites and by fleas. In the 14th century it was known as the Black Death in Europe and killed tens of millions of people. If left untreated, 30% to 60% of people with it die.

According to the US Centre for Disease Control, about 1 000 to 2 000 cases worldwide are reported to the World Health Organisation annually, though it is believed the real number of cases was much higher.

The last outbreak of bubonic plague in South Africa was 34 years ago in the Eastern Cape, according to the NICD.

Although South Africa was prone to plagues and had experienced them in the past, one was more likely to occur in a rural setting than in an urban area.

Frean said despite evidence being found in the rat, it would still take some time before it began to affect humans.

A human would only be infected with the plague if an infected flea which had been feeding on the infected rat had no other rodent to feed on.

Death of rodents

"So for human populations to be at risk, there really needs to be a large scale death of rodents which leaves the fleas without their meal and therefore they'd look for alternatives and find humans.

"So we haven't found any evidence of a large scale die-off which means the risk to the human population at this point doesn't exist."

Gauteng health department spokesperson, Steve Mabona, confirmed further testing of antibody surveillance of the plague was continuing in high risk areas as well as areas of high population density.

Mabona said the department also stressed the importance of personal and community hygiene.

Frean said residents in the area could take their own steps to reduce the risk of spread by keeping their immediate surroundings clean.

"We can trap, poison and gas as many [rats] as we want, they just breed to fill the vacuum, so unless we clean up our environment, we're never going to reduce them to acceptable numbers," Frean said.

"I think we have to accept that they will always be with us but it's possible to get them to numbers which aren't a threat to our health."

Pikitup strike

The strike by workers from refuse removal company Pikitup, which was now in its sixth week, was exacerbating the problem of rodents in the city, especially in informal settlements which had inadequate disposal facilities, Frean said.

"So we understand that it's obviously difficult for people living under those circumstances to do very much, but they should do what they can," he said.

This included securing food in rodent-proof containers which would not be a source of attraction for the rats, closing up cracks and holes in the walls of their dwellings, as well as keeping both the inside and outside hygienic.

"That means finding somewhere to dispose of your rubbish effectively and safely, it's not acceptable to throw it in the next door neighbour's yard."

Bigger health risks

Frean said there were bigger potential health risks from the uncollected rubbish.

"To be honest plague is really the least of our concerns, in terms of the health risks; I think there are far more pressing health risks, but obviously plague is one that catches the most attention.

"I'm not saying it should be ignored but it just needs to be seen in the context of the problem," Frean added.

Those who wanted to learn more about the plague could visit the NICD's website.

Read more on:    johannesburg  |  health

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