Two patients in China have been diagnosed with a form of plague and are receiving treatment in Beijing. The patients, who are from the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, developed the pneumonic form of the disease, which is the only one that can be spread directly from person to person.
Chinese health officials isolated the patients, conducted medical checks on people they had recently been in contact with, and disinfected any areas that could have been contaminated. They assured residents that the risk of plague spreading is “extremely low.”
Pneumonic plague is one of three forms of plague, which was responsible for wiping out tens of millions of people across Europe during the Middle Ages. While antibiotics can treat the infection before it becomes fatal, thousands of people still contract the disease every year. The disease can be spread to humans from infected flea bites, direct exposure to infected tissue, or breathing in infected respiratory droplets.
The World Health Organization tracked nearly 2,500 cases between 2010 and 2015. During that time period, 584 people died after contracting the plague.
There a few dozen cases in the United States every year. In 2015, two people in Colorado died after getting the plague.
The WHO has classified the plague as a re-emerging disease because there have been nearly 50,000 human cases over the past 20 years.