Pneumonic plague kills even faster than the better-known bubonic form, which is transmitted by flea bites and gets its name from the infected lymph nodes that form large, swollen “buboes” in the groin, armpits and neck.
Both forms caused the infamous Black Death of the mid-14th century, which is thought to have killed a third of Europe and caused major social upheavals.
The Madagascar outbreak started in August, when a 31-year-old man originally thought to have malaria traveled by bush taxi from the central highlands to his home in the coastal city of Toamasina, passing through the capital, Antananarivo.
He died en route and “a large cluster of infections” broke out among his contacts, according to a W.H.O. update issued Oct. 4. Those contacts passed it on to others.
Plague was not confirmed until blood samples collected from a 47-year-old woman who died on Sept. 11 in an Antananarivo hospital of what appeared to be pneumonia were tested at Madagascar’s branch of the Pasteur Institute. The samples came up positive on a rapid test for plague.
The W.H.O. was notified on Sept. 13.
Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Terrifying as the disease is, it can usually be cured by common antibiotics. Antibiotic-resistant strains have been isolated in Madagascar but are not thought to be a factor in the latest outbreak.
The W.H.O. calculated that the antibiotics it has shipped, and another 244,000 doses on the way, will be enough to treat 5,000 patients and protect another 100,000 people who might have been exposed.
Personal protective gear and disinfection equipment, similar to that used during Ebola epidemics, also will be sent. Local health workers will be trained to safely treat patients and to trace all their contacts and offer them prophylactic antibiotics.
The W.H.O. has released $1.5 million from its emergency fund and has appealed for $5.5 million more from donors.
In June, prompted by the slow response to the Ebola crisis, the World Bank issued bonds to create a $500 million “insurance fund” for fighting pandemics.
But the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility covers only viruses, and only the six viral families thought to pose the greatest threats, including those that cause Ebola, SARS, pandemic flus, Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever.
The fund will also have a cash reserve of 50 million euros — about $58 million — that can be used to fight diseases not covered by the insurance. But the reserve is not due to be available until next year.
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