Plague follows earthquake in stricken central India

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The Independent Online
BUBONIC plague has broken out in a region of central India that a year ago was devastated by an earthquake which killed more than 30,000 people. It is thought that the tremors in Maharashtra state drove swarms of rats carrying fleas with the disease out of the forests and into the villages being rebuilt after the quake.

So far, doctors have detected more than 40 cases of plague, none fatal. But Indians have grim memories of how swiftly the 'Black Death' can spread: a 20-year epidemic, which began in 1898, scythed down more than 12.5 million people.

The killer earthquake last year struck on the final night of a festival devoted to Ganesh, an elephant-headed Hindu god. This year the celebrations were sombre, fearful. Many superstitious villagers were left worrying over what they had done to offend the god who had cursed them with an earthquake and a plague.

'It is said in our village that any tragedy repeats itself three times. We are keeping our fingers crossed,' said Dr Shankarrao Padsagli, an elder from Killari, a village where thousands of sleeping families were crushed as their stone houses collapsed in last September's earthquake.

This area of central India has been rumbling ominously with hundreds of small jolts over the past year, and many villagers are sleeping in the fields, afraid to return to their devastated houses.

Shaken from their burrows by the earthquakes, the forest rats invaded the villages. They thrive on grain stores buried in the rubble, and as they multiply, so do the fleas infected with bubonic plague.

In Mamala village, where more than 35 people have come down with the fevers, chills and swelling of lymph glands caused by the disease, one man, Vashita Langhe, ventured into his locked home recently, believing that the tremors had finally stopped. But the rats had crept inside his house before him. Thousands of fleas leapt out at him. One Indian daily quoted Mr Langhe's neighbour, Sonaji Kashinath, as saying: 'A swarm of fleas covered him and made him run in panic. People have been on the run ever since to escape being attacked by these pests.'

It was after the great Indian plague at the turn of the century that British scientists identified rodent fleas as the carriers of bubonic plague. Since the latest epidemic was first detected on 5 August, health officials have sprayed pesticides through more than 50 villages and given life-saving tetracycline to thousands of people.

Some health experts claim the government was slow to react to the rapidly spreading disease. No quarantine has yet been imposed on the plague area, although it has surfaced in villages up to 30 miles apart. The plague had not been found in India for 28 years, and all the medical facilities for fighting it had been dismantled.