As Bubonic Plague Kills Another Man in Mongolia, Russia Starts Mass Vaccination Against Black Death

A man died from bubonic plague in western Mongolia on Tuesday after coming into contact with dead marmots, according to local health officials.

The 42-year-old from Khovd Province reportedly purchased two of the large rodents before contracting the disease, a spokesperson for the country's health ministry said.

The spokesperson, Dorj Narangerel, urged citizens to avoid hunting or eating marmots, which are carriers of the disease in the region, Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua reported.

It is illegal to hunt marmots in Mongolia. However, at least one person dies from plague every year in the country, usually after eating or coming into contact with marmots—a large member of the squirrel family.

Many people in Mongolia consider the rodent a delicacy, with the meat believed to provide health benefits.

The landlocked Asian country has confirmed four cases of bubonic plague this year, among a total of 12 suspected cases. In July, a 15-year-old boy in the neighboring Mongolian province of Govi-Altai died from the disease around three days after eating marmot meat, according to the country's National Center for Zoonotic Diseases (NCZD).

In fact, the NCZD said that 17 out of 21 Mongolian provinces are now at risk of bubonic plague cases.

According to Mongolian health authorities, more than 70 people who had recently been in close contact with the deceased 42-year-old will now be placed in quarantine and tested for the disease.

Bubonic plague is a potentially deadly disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which initially affects the lymph nodes, leading to swellings known as buboes. It has a mortality rate of around 30-50 percent if left untreated. Modern antibiotics are effective against the illness.

Although this is the most common form of plague, infection with the bacteria can also cause other diseases, such as pneumonic and septicemic plague, which primarily affect the lungs and blood respectively, and are invariably fatal without prompt treatment.

The Yersinia pestis bacteria is usually carried by small mammals, such as rats and marmots, as well as the fleas that live on them. The bacteria is typically transmitted to humans through the bites of these fleas. However, infection can occur after direct contact with the tissue or bodily fluids of an infected animal.

Thus, if people are able to avoid contact with rodents known to be carriers, they are unlikely to become infected. Transmission of the plague bacteria from human to human is very rare and only occurs when someone is in close contact with an individual who has pneumonic plague and breathes in their infectious cough droplets.

Yersinia pestis bacteria, flea
A flea 41 days after infection with Yersinia pestis, 1981. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

"There are rarely large outbreaks of plague. Plague is a relatively rare disease, showing it is quite hard for humans to be infected," Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, U.K., told Newsweek.

This month, health officials in the Inner Mongolia region of China—which borders the country of Mongolia—also reported two plague deaths. These cases prompted officials in the nearby Russian region of Buryatia to begin testing rodents for the plague and issue warnings to residents not to hunt or eat marmots.

Meanwhile, the Russian regions of Trans-Baikal and the Altai Republic are also monitoring the prevalence of the pathogen. Furthermore, the Republic of Tuva, which borders Mongolia, has begun a mass vaccination campaign to prevent the spread of plague.

So far, more than 3,000 people have been vaccinated as part of the campaign in the region after "a large distribution of the plague pathogen" was detected in two districts, according to Rospotrebnadzor, Russia's health watchdog.

While plague—the cause of the infamous "Black Death" pandemic of the Middle Ages—is rare today, it has not totally been confined to the history books.

A few hundred cases of bubonic plague are typically recorded every year around the world, with most occurring in Asia and parts of Africa, although isolated cases are also found in places such as the U.S.