What is Plague?

Plague, sometimes called black death, is primarily an infection of rodents caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. The disease can be transmitted to human from rodents through a vector, the rodent flea. The incubation period is between 1-7 days. The patient usually has fever, headache and painful swelling of the regional lymph nodes (buboes). This is the common form of Plague manifestation and is termed Bubonic Plague.

The infection can progress to Septicaemic Plague when the blood stream is invaded. A spread of the infection to the lung will result in Pneumonia or Pneumonic Plague. A patient with Pneumonic Plague has fever, chills, cough with blood-stained frothy sputum, shortness of breath and shock. The patient is highly infectious in this most serious form.

How does it spread?

Plague is transmitted from rodent to man through the bite of an infected rodent flea. People can also contract Plague when cuts or other breaks in their skin come into contact with the body fluid or tissue of infected animals. Bubonic Plague is not usually transmitted directly from person to person. Pneumonic Plague is a highly contagious condition. It can spread from person to person by airborne droplets.

How can you prevent it?

Travellers should avoid visiting Plague-infected areas. If travel to such areas is necessary, appropriate precautions should be observed:-

  • Avoid rat-infested places, which usually are dirty and full of food debris.

  • Avoid being bitten by flea by wearing long sleeved shirts and long trousers.

  • Apply insect repellent to exposed areas of the body.

  • Never touch dead rodents.

  • Preventive use of antibiotic should be considered only for those with exceptionally high risk of exposure to Plague, such as laboratory workers.

There is a vaccine available but it is not recommended for use by travellers.

If you develop symptoms such as fever, painful lumps, chills, malaise, within 7 days after travelling to Plague infected areas, you should see a doctor immediately for investigation and treatment.

How is it treated?

Treatment must be started properly when Plague is suspected. Plague patient should be isolated and treated with suitable antibiotics. If the antibiotics are used properly and in time, the patient can recover fully. Patients who do not receive adequate treatment within 18 hours after onset of respiratory symptoms are usually unlikely to survive.



Last revision date: 10 October 2012