SA on alert: what you should know about the 'black death' plague

accreditation
SA is one of nine countries identified to be on high alert.
SA is one of nine countries identified to be on high alert.

News24 reported on 25 October that South Africa is one of nine countries warned by the World Health Organization (WHO) to take precautionary measures for the "black death" plague, also known as bubonic plague, which can be treated successfully with antibiotics. 

The other eight countries include the Comoros, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, France's La Réunion, the Seychelles and Tanzania.

This followed after a recent outbreak in Madagascar in September 2017.

Ever since, the WHO has been concerned that the disease will spread – 124 people died and 1 133 people were infected. 

Read more: Update: Bubonic plague - what is being done in SA?

One of the biggest pandemics in history

The WHO stated that the disease can be treated in the present day with antibiotics, but in the fourteenth century this disease was still responsible for causing 50 million deaths across Europe. 

Bubonic plague – the facts

Bubonic plague is an infection of the lymphatic system, pneumonic plague is an infection of the respiratory system and septicemic plague is an infection in the blood stream.

While bubonic plague is transmitted to humans via fleas living on rats, pneumonic plague is the most virulent and least common form of the plague and can be inhaled and transmitted between humans without involvement of animals or fleas.

It occurs when Yersina pestis bacteria infect the lungs and cause pneumonia and, without treatment, it can kill within 24 hours. 

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms include sudden fevers and chills, headaches, body aches, weakness and shortness of breath, chest pain and cough, sometimes coughing up blood and blood in the sputum.

How is it treated?

Antibiotics are effective in the treatment of plague, and should be started as soon as possible to prevent complications. The antibiotics used for treating plague include tetracyclines (such as doxycycline), fluoroquinolones (such as ciprofloxacin) and amingolycosides (including streptomycin and gentamycin).

History of bubonic plague

The bubonic plague signified real terror in urban communities for hundreds of years. Spread by airborne bacteria or by infected fleas living on rats in unhygienic urban conditions, this disease wiped out two-thirds of the inhabitants of parts of Europe in the 14th century.

The plague returned for centuries, often in the summer months. It is thought that the Great Fire of London in 1666 was largely responsible for ending this scourge in London, as it destroyed many of the favourite haunts of the rats which bore the infected fleas.

But in other areas, including modern urban environments, the Black Plague (aka Black Death) is still a reality – although a lot less terrifying since the advent of antibiotics.

Here are some more facts about this disease

  • The pneumonic plague, which was spread via the coughing of infected people, had a death rate of 100%.
  • In the 14th century it killed almost two-thirds of the inhabitants of northern Europe – mostly within three or four days of the time of infection.
  • In 1347 the inhabitants of Genoa shot burning arrows at a naval vessel returning from war in the Crimea known to have Bubonic plague on board.
  • It spread nevertheless and, in four years, killed 75 million people in Europe, often more than half the population of a given country.
  • It was called the "Black Plague", because of the black discolouration of toes and fingers as a result of coagulation of the blood in these body parts.
  • No one knew then what caused it. However, it turned out that fleas were spreading the plague from infected rats. But for many years people believed that the disease was spread by filthy air. Often household pets or rats were the first to die – they were blamed for this disease, which lead to the killing of many pets as a (useless) preventative measure.
  • The other two types of plague are pneumonic plague (which was also rampant in the 14th century) and septicaemic plague.
  • Bubonic plague is the most common form of plague. It occurs when an infected flea bites a person or, in rare cases, when material contaminated with the Yersinia pestis bacterium enters through a crack in the skin.

    The information in this article originally appeared in a previous article published on Health24.
  • We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
    In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
    Subscribe to News24
    Voting Booth
    Gauteng DA leader Solly Msimanga says the party's voters want it to explore conditional coalition talks with the ANC. 
    Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
    Results
    It's a step in the right direction. An ANC-DA coalition would be the most stable option for SA
    33% - 3082 votes
    The DA should focus on working with all opposition parties, including the EFF, to unseat the ANC
    14% - 1364 votes
    The DA should rather remain in opposition than form a coalition with the ANC or the EFF
    53% - 4976 votes
    Vote
    Rand - Dollar
    17.09
    +0.0%
    Rand - Pound
    20.67
    +0.3%
    Rand - Euro
    17.89
    -0.4%
    Rand - Aus dollar
    11.46
    +0.7%
    Rand - Yen
    0.12
    -0.8%
    Gold
    1,761.63
    +0.2%
    Silver
    21.48
    +0.1%
    Palladium
    1,858.00
    +0.1%
    Platinum
    989.46
    +0.6%
    Brent Crude
    83.63
    -2.0%
    Top 40
    66,589
    -0.3%
    All Share
    72,952
    -0.3%
    Resource 10
    70,801
    -0.9%
    Industrial 25
    87,472
    +0.1%
    Financial 15
    16,325
    -0.3%
    All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
    Editorial feedback and complaints

    Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.

    LEARN MORE