Couple Diagnosed With Contagious 'Black Death' Stokes Fear in Beijing

Pneumonic plague
An anteroposterior (AP) chest x-ray of a plague patient revealing bilateral infection, greater on the patient's left side, which was diagnosed as a case of pneumonic plague, caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis. Pneumonic plague may develop from inhaling infectious droplets or may develop from untreated bubonic or septicemic plague after the bacteria spread to the lungs. The pneumonia may cause respiratory failure and shock. Pneumonic plague is the most serious form of the disease and is the only form of plague that can be spread from person to person (by infectious droplets). Image courtesy CDC/Dr. Jack Poland, 1975. Smith Collection/Gado

A couple from China's remote Inner Mongolia province traveled to Beijing earlier in the week seeking treatment for symptoms including fever, chills, nausea and vomiting. On Tuesday, Chinese officials confirmed that the couple had pneumonic plague, a severe form of the so-called "Black Death" that decimated European and African populations in the 14th century.

Unlike the better-known bubonic plague, which is mainly transmitted to humans through contact with infected animals, such as fleas, pneumonic plague can be transmitted from person to person by the airborne particles contained in an infected person's cough, similarly to the common cold.

Left untreated, pneumonic plague is always fatal, causing death within 48 to 72 hours. However, "antibiotic treatment is effective against plague bacteria, so early diagnosis and early treatment can save lives," according to the World Health Organization. "Recovery rates are high if detected and treated in time (within 24 hours of onset of symptoms)," WHO noted.

On Weibo, a Chinese social media platform that is often compared to Twitter, a hashtag "Beijing confirms it is treating plague cases" popped up—and was quickly suppressed—after the news broke, according to CBS.

"I just want to know how these two came to Beijing?? By train, airplane, or did they drive themselves?" one user asked. "Bird flu in the year of the rooster...swine fever in the year of the pig. Next year is the year of the rat...the plague is coming," another suggested.

China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued its own message via Weibo on Wednesday: "After the two cases were found, the Beijing Weijian system has timely isolated the cases and carried out detailed information on the activities of the cases after entering Beijing. The epidemiological investigation conducted detailed investigations on suspected exposed populations, conducted medical observations and preventive medications for the contacts, conducted terminal disinfection of the relevant sites, and strengthened the monitoring of fever patients."

"The risk is extremely low," the agency added.

After the couple was diagnosed, workers at Beijing's Chaoyang Hospital replaced all of the chairs in the emergency room while police stood guard, according to reports from Chinese outlet Caixin Global.

"The (Chinese) National Health Commission are implementing efforts to contain and treat the identified cases, and increasing surveillance," WHO China Coordinator Fabio Scano told CBS News on Thursday.

On Friday, one of the patients was in "critical but not deteriorating" condition, while the other was in stable condition, NPR reported. The couple have been relocated from Chaoyang to another unspecified hospital in Beijing.

Other countries that have experienced plague outbreaks in recent years include the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Peru. "In Madagascar cases of bubonic plague are reported nearly every year, during the epidemic season (between September and April)," according to the WHO.