GENEVA – The World Health Organization on Friday warned that an outbreak of plague currently afflicting the African island of Madagascar was spreading more rapidly than usual, with at least 300 confirmed cases and 94 deaths to date.
The WHO’s regional emergency director for Africa, Ibrahima Soce Fall, said at a press conference at the United Nations public health agency’s headquarters in Geneva that the combined number of suspected and confirmed cases had reached 1,153, adding that the risk of contagion was very high compared to previous plague outbreaks.
Fall said that the spread of the disease – which is endemic to the Indian Ocean island, one of the world’s poorest countries – was especially worrying this year since it started earlier in the season than usual, has affected towns rather than rural expanses and was mostly manifesting itself as pneumonic plague, the deadliest and most contagious variety.
Pneumonic plague can be transmitted from person to person via droplets in the air, while the more common bubonic plague is usually found in small mammals (especially rats) and their fleas.
Every year, some 600 cases of plague are reported in Madagascar during the epidemic season between September and April.
This year, 14 out of the country’s 22 regions have been affected, although the disease has chiefly struck the capital, Antananarivo, and the adjacent eastern coastal province of Toamasina, where the outbreak erupted on Aug. 23.
Fall said the WHO had launched an operation involving 2,000 workers in an attempt to identify “all contacts” of possibly-infected people and provide antibiotic prophylaxis to those at risk of contracting the illness.
He added that the organization hoped to contain the disease’s spread and quickly revert the current negative trend.
Bubonic plague is contracted following a flea bite by an infected insect when the bacterium enters the organism and moves through the lymphatic system until it reaches the nearest lymph node, where it begins to multiply.
Once it reaches the lungs, it turns into pneumonic plague, which becomes deadly if left untreated.
The same bacterium was the cause of the infamous “Black Death” pandemic that ravaged Europe in the 14th century, killing an estimated 50 million people and leaving a death toll as high as 60 percent of the population in some regions.
According to WHO statistics, some 3,248 people were infected with plague between 2010-15, 584 of which died from the disease.
Plague is most common in Madagascar, Peru and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although potential natural foci are spread throughout the globe.