Bubonic Plague: Eating Raw Marmot Kidneys Caused Black Death of Couple in Mongolia, Official Confirms

A couple who died of the bubonic plague ate raw marmot meat and kidneys before they died, according to an official.

A Mongolian woman and her husband died on May 1, BBC News and Agence France-Presse reported. Previous reports stated the couple from the Mongolian city of Uglii succumbed to illness on April 27, and that the woman was 37 years old and pregnant, while her husband was 38. Their names have not been released. AFP reported the couple were of Kazakh ethnicity.

Before they died, the couple had eaten the raw meat and kidneys of a marmot, Ariuntuya Ochirpurev of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar told BBC News. She explained the meat was a traditional remedy believed to promote good health.

Between 1989 to 1997, 69 cases of bubonic plague were recorded in Mongolia. Twenty-two of those individuals died, Ochirpurev said. One case was reported in 2017, but the patient survived.

The latest deaths sparked a six-day-long quarantine in the western province of Bayan Olgii. It is believe 118 people—including seven tourists from Kazakhstan, South Korea, Switzerland, and Sweden—came into contact with the husband and wife, Ochirpurev said. They were quarantined, and given antibiotics as a precaution.

Last week, Dr N. Tsogbadrakh, director of Mongolia's National Center for Zoonotic Dermatology and Medicine, said the man hunted a marmot, ate the meat and gave some to his wife. The pair left behind four children, he said. Tsogbadrakh also confirmed that eating marmots was banned.

Sebastian Pique, a volunteer with the U.S. Peace Corps who lives in the region, told AFP: "After the quarantine [was announced] not many people, even locals, were in the streets for fear of catching the disease."

groundhog marmot rodent stock getty
A wild groundhog, a member of the large ground squirrel family of marmots. A couple in Mongolia died after eating the meat of a type of marmot. Getty Images

The bubonic plague is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, which is spread by wild rodents when their fleas hop from one animal to another, according to the WHO. Humans can catch the plague if they are bitten by an infected flea, or by handling infected animals.

There are three types of the plague: bubonic, septicaemic and pneumonic. Each denotes how the disease is passed on. If left untreated, the plague can be deadly—particularly the pneumonic and septicaemic forms. Treatments include taking antibiotics to kill the bacteria.

Following a three- to seven-day incubation period, an infected person is likely be hit with flu-like symptoms, including a fever, chills, vomiting and nausea, as well an aching head and body.

The plague is widely believed to have caused the Black Death, a 14th-century pandemic that swept across Europe in the medieval period, killing an estimated 50 million people.