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Pneumonic plague reported in remote western China
Three deaths and several illnesses are attributed to the disease. Health officials close access to Ziketan, a town of 10,000 in Qinghai province that is mostly populated by Tibetans.
By Barbara Demick and Joshua Frank
10:15 AM PDT, August 3, 2009
Reporting from Beijing -- Chinese health officials have cordoned off a remote western town after three deaths caused by the rare but deadly pneumonic plague.
The victims all lived in Ziketan, a town of 10,000 in Qinghai province that is mostly populated by Tibetans.
The first victim was a 32-year-old herdsman who died Thursday, four days after falling ill with a fever and cough. State radio reported that the man contracted the illness from his dog, which apparently was infected after being bitten by a flea. The herdsman's 37-year-old neighbor died Sunday and a 64-year-old man died today.
Another nine people were reported to be ill or under observation, one of them in critical condition, at the Tibetan Hospital of Xinghai county.
"Experts continue to carry out disinfecting and pest control work and are tracing people in contact with victims for quarantine purposes," the New China News Agency reported today.
Pneumonic plague is the even deadlier relative of the notorious bubonic plague, which killed millions in Europe in the Middle Ages. Spread person to person through the air, it usually kills all its victims unless they are treated with antibiotics.
In recent years, there have been sporadic outbreaks of the pneumonic plague, most of them in Africa. The few cases in China have been mostly in Tibetan areas in the west.
"In the 1980s, there were a series of plagues in Tibet, but recently not so many," said Tseten Dargye, a physician in Dawu, another Tibetan town in Qinghai province. He said the disease was spread by ticks living on marmots, which are indigenous to the mountainous Tibetan region.
Zhang Changmin, a driver from Qinghai, said that all roads in and out of Ziketan had been closed off since last week to prevent the spread of the disease.
So far the disease does not appear to be causing the panic brought on by the far less deadly swine flu, the threat of which has prompted Chinese authorities to put thousands of people into quarantine, among them U.S. tourists.
Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the World Health Organization in China, said today that Ziketan's remote location and the low population density reduces the threat of the disease spreading.
"At this point I don't think there's a reason to be alarmed," she said. "Authorities seem to have taken the right measures."
According to Tan, this is the first time the Chinese government has officially notified the WHO of cases of pneumonic plague. But she noted there have been sporadic reports of the disease in the country before.
There had been two other cases in Qinghai in recent years, once in 2001 and again in 2004. Last year, pneumonic plague killed a couple in Tibet, according to the Ministry of Health.
Pneumonic plague outbreak in China
By Henry Sanderson, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BEIJING - Residents of a remote farming town in western China say people have been seeking to flee in defiance of a lockdown by authorities to prevent the spread of highly infectious pneumonic plague which has claimed three lives in the area.
Police have set up checkpoints around Ziketan in Qinghai province, a town of 10,000 people, which has been put under quarantine after at least a dozen people caught the lung infection that can kill within 24 hours if untreated.
Some people tried to leave the quarantined area Monday evening, mostly by foot, after the third death was reported, two residents reached by The Associated Press said.
"A lot of people ran off last night when they heard that another person died of this plague. They are mostly from other provinces," a local food seller, surnamed Han, said Tuesday. "They headed back home with food, water and their donkeys."
A Tibetan woman named Xiumaocuo, a migrant construction worker from another village in Qinghai, said there were very few people on the streets.
"I've heard the migrant workers who build projects went home last night," she said by telephone. "My boss told me that more than 50 of the 100 construction workers on our project left homes already."
It was unclear if the people who headed out of the town made it past the police checkpoints, which residents say have been set up in 17-mile (28-kilometre) radius around Ziketan, which lies more than 300 miles (480 kilometres) west of Beijing.
Officials at the local and provincial level were unavailable to comment.
Chinese authorities have been in contact with the World Health Organization about their steps to contain the outbreak of plague, a disease that circulates mainly among small animals like rats and mice but can also infect humans.
Pneumonic plague is the least common and most deadly form of the disease. It can be directly spread between humans since the bacteria is airborne and can easily be inhaled by those in close contact with infected patients. But if treated early with antibiotics, it is curable.
The outbreak in Ziketan was first detected Thursday, although it isn't clear when the first victim died.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the latest victim was a 64-year-old man named Danzhi - a neighbour of the first two fatalities, described in reports as a 32-year-old herdsman and a 37-year-old man.
The herdsman fell sick after burying his dog, which had died suddenly, according to a report by the official China National Radio, citing a hospital official.
His relatives were among a further nine people who are infected and in a hospital, according to the local health bureau. One is in extremely serious condition and one other has developed symptoms of coughing and chest pain, but the rest are in stable condition, Xinhua and the health department said.
Worldwide, thousands of plague cases are reported each year, mostly in Africa. Between 1998 and 2008, nearly 24,000 cases were reported, including about 2,000 deaths, in Africa, Asia, the Americas and eastern Europe.
China has had cases before. WHO said in a 2006 report that most cases in China's northwest occur when hunters are contaminated while skinning infected animals.
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