China’s Bubonic Plague Response Seems a Little Extreme

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July 23 2014 5:29 PM

China’s Bubonic Plague Response Seems a Little Extreme

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Bubonic plague bacteria.

Photo by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Getty Images

Chinese authorities have sealed off the 30,000 inhabitants of the northwestern city of Yumen and quarantined 151 people after a man died of bubonic plague. The man was apparently infected after coming into contact with a dead marmot. "The city has enough rice, flour and oil to supply all its residents for up to one month,” reported CCTV, making it sound as if this might not end for a while.

You might take this story as yet another sign of the end times, but the thing is, bubonic plague isn’t that unusual. There are between 1,000 and 2,000 cases per year around the world, including, typically, a handful in the United States, mostly in the Southwest. The plague may have killed tens of millions back in the 14th century, but these days it's usually treatable with antibiotics.

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After China was heavily criticized for its handling of SARS and H5N1 outbreaks, it makes sense that authorities might be especially cautious about stopping a potential new disease outbreak. But given that plague spreads through fleas rather than person-to-person contact and the fact that no other infections have been detected, the reaction here seems a bit extreme.

Unless there's something else going on here that we don't know about yet, it seems like it should be possible to contain this situation without turning a large town into a Camus novel.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

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