China seals off town as third man dies
By Gillian Wong
The Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — China locked down a remote farming town after three people died and 10 more were sickened with pneumonic plague, a lung infection that can kill a human in 24 hours if untreated.
Police set up checkpoints around Ziketan in northwestern Qinghai province, where townspeople said the streets were largely deserted and most shops were shut down.
Authorities urged anyone who had visited the town since mid-July and has developed a cough or fever to seek hospital treatment.
On Sunday, a 37-year-old man identified only as Danzin became the second reported fatality from the outbreak. He lived next door to the first victim, a 32-year-old herder. The 10 sickened, mostly relatives of the herder, were undergoing isolated treatment in a hospital, the local health bureau said.
The World Health Organization office in China said it was in close contact with Chinese health authorities and that measures taken so far to treat and quarantine sickened people were appropriate. It did not comment on the move to seal off the town.
“This form of pneumonic plague is probably the least common but the most severe,” said Vivian Tran, a WHO spokeswoman in China. “It has a very high fatality rate and generally spreads quite easily. So we’re certainly concerned about the situation.”
In Ziketan, authorities have said homes and shops should be disinfected. Residents should wear masks when they go out, said a food seller surnamed Han who runs a stall at the Crystal Alley Market.
Around 80 percent of the town’s shops were closed last Monday, Han said, and prices of disinfectants and some vegetables have already tripled.
“People are so scared. There are few people on the streets,” Han said by telephone. “There are police guarding the quarantine center at the township hospital, but not on the streets.”
According to WHO, the pneumonic plague is one of the deadliest infectious diseases, capable of killing humans within 24 hours of infection. It is spread through the air and can be passed from person to person through coughing.
The website of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says people infected must be given antibiotics within 24 hours of showing symptoms, while people who have had direct contact with those infected can protect themselves by taking antibiotics for seven days.
A woman who lives in Ziketan, who refused to give her name when reached by telephone, said county officials distributed flyers and made television and radio announcements on how to prevent infection.
The woman said police checkpoints were set up in a 17-mile (28-kilometer) radius around Ziketan and residents were not allowed to leave.
The situation in Ziketan was stable, said an official surnamed Wang at the local disease control center, who added the measures taken were “scientific, orderly, effective, and in accordance with the law.”
Officials refused to give further details about the situation.
Pneumonic plague is caused by the same bacteria that caused the bubonic plague — the Black Death that killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe during the Middle Ages. The bubonic plague is usually transmitted by flea bites.
Pneumonic plague occurs when the bacteria infect the lungs, or after complications from the bubonic plague that goes untreated.
People infected with the plague usually experience flu-like symptoms including fever, chills, muscle aches, vomiting, and nausea, after an incubation period of three to seven days. If treated early with antibiotics, the plague is curable.
Since 2001, the WHO has reported six plague outbreaks, though some may go unreported because they often happen in remote areas. Between 1998 and 2008, nearly 24,000 cases have been reported, including about 2,000 deaths, in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Eastern Europe. Most of the world’s cases are in Africa.
A 2006 WHO report from an international meeting on the plague cited a Chinese government disease expert as saying that most cases of the plague in China’s northwest occur when hunters are contaminated while skinning infected animals. The expert said at the time that due to the region’s remoteness, the disease killed more than half the infected people.
The report also said that since the 1990s, there was a rise in plague cases in humans — from fewer than 10 in the 1980s to nearly 100 cases in 1996 and 254 in 2000. Official statistics posted on the Health Ministry’s Web site showed that there were no cases of a plague last year and the previous year.
In 2004, eight villagers in Qinghai died of the plague, most of them infected after killing or eating wild marmots, which are relatives of gophers and prairie dogs. Marmots live in the grasslands of China’s northwest and Mongolia, where villagers often hunt them for meat. ♦