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Health News

Black Death returns: Herder dies of bubonic plague in Kyrgyzstan after being bitten by infected flea

Death of Temir Issakunov is the first case of bubonic plague in the country for over 30 years

A 15-year-old Kyrgyzstani herder has died of bubonic plague after being bitten by a flea – the first case of Black Death in the country for over 30 years.

In an effort to calm fears of an epidemic, an emergency quarantine zone has been set-up to contain around 100 people who may have contracted the disease.

In the Middle Ages, bubonic plague is thought to have killed between 75 and 200 million people, with the pandemic of the 1340s and 1350s considered among the most devastating in human history – leaving between 30 and 60% of Europe’s total population dead.

Temir Issakunov is thought to have died after being bitten by an infected flea while he herded livestock in a remote village in the north east of Kyrgyzstan – a mountainous country in central Asia. Initial reports that he died after eating a barbecued marmot are believed to be false.

Issakunov died last week, but tests on his body have only just revealed his cause of death to be bubonic plague.

Tolo Isakov, an official from Kyrgyzstan’s health ministry, said teams of pest control agents have been sent into the area to kill rats and other rodents that may be harbouring the disease.

He added that around 2,000 local people face compulsory tests to see if they are infected with bubonic plague, with antibiotics prescribed to anyone suffering its symptoms.

Checkpoints have also been set-up to monitor and contain the movement of livestock in the remote region, with landlocked Kyrgyzstan’s borders with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China subject to rigorous controls.

The Black Death pandemic that peaked in 1348-1350 is believed to have started in the mountains in and around Kyrgyzstan, spreading along the Eurasian, Silk Road-trading route before eventually reaching Europe.

Its destructive effects on the European population led to a number of societal, political and religious upheavals, as personal freedom and social mobility improved among a shell-shocked, God-questioning population suddenly lacking rigid community leadership structures.

The first definitive reference to bubonic plague was the Plague of Justinian, which devastated the population of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 541-542 AD.

Sporadic outbreaks of bubonic plague were reported in Europe until the mid-19th century, with the last serious non-European outbreak in 2010, when 12 people were found to have been infected in Peru.

Bubonic plague can now be treated with antibiotics, with the mortality rate reduced to between 1% and 15% in treated cases.

Speed of care remains vital however, with antibiotic treatment required within 12-24-hours of the first symptoms in order to prevent the mortality rate rising to between 40% and 60%.