Second wave of plague hits India

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The Independent Online
A PLAGUE epidemic has broken out in Surat, a seaport of 1.5 million people in southwest India, claiming at least 17 lives in 24 hours. Unofficially, the toll for this outbreak of pneumonic plague is nearer 200, and more than 100,000 citizens are fleeing by road and rail.

Doctors are baffled that plague, which had practically vanished in the past 20 years, should have surfaced in south-west and central India, in two deadly forms. Bubonic plague has hit Maharashtra state, as rats dislodged from the forests by last year's earthquake - which killed more than 30,000 people - invaded the villages. Bubonic plague, carried by rodents' fleas, has infected 60 people, but there have been no deaths so far.

More dangerous is pneumonic plague which has struck Surat, a teeming port in Gujarat state at the centre of India's gem-cutting industry. Its filthy lanes where men sit in tiny rooms over the diamond-cutting wheels are a lethal breeding ground for pneumonic plague which affects the lungs.

A Delhi spokesman of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said: 'The plague isn't the menace that it was in the Middle Ages or even at the turn of this century. We have antibiotics to fight it.'

At the turn of the century a plague epidemic raged across India for 20 years, killing 12.5 million people. An antibiotic, tetracycline, has proved effective at combating the dreaded Black Death. A consignment of 160,000 capsules of tetracycline has been sent from Bombay but Surat city officials claim they need 2 million capsules to contain the disease.

Gujarat officials shut down Surat's schools, and a quarantined ward for plague patients has been opened. Authorities have shut parks, cinemas and other public places in Surat for a week.

Gujarat and the area of central Maharashtra where the bubonic plague was detected a fortnight ago are over 500 miles apart, and epidemiologists do not know if the two outbreaks are related.