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Is The Bubonic Plague Really Back? Here's Why You Shouldn't Panic

If one global public health pandemic isn't enough, authorities in China's Inner Mongolia region have reported finding a suspected case of bubonic plague, the disease which caused the deadliest pandemic in recorded history. Local officials in the city of Bayan Nur issued a level 3 plague prevention warning Sunday after a local hospital confirmed it was treating a farmer with the illness. But is the bubonic plague really back and do you need to worry about it?

"At present, there is a risk of a human plague epidemic spreading in this city," the state-run newspaper China Daily quoted local health authorities as having said. "The public should improve its self-protection awareness and ability, and report abnormal health conditions promptly."

The level 3 plague prevention warning issued Sunday is expected to remain in effect until the end of the year. Although the second lowest warning level in the region's four-level warning system, it bars people from hunting and eating animals capable of carrying plague and asks the public to report suspected cases of plague or fevers that appear to have no clear cause, according to The Guardian. The warning also asks people to report any evidence of sick or dead marmots, an animal that has historically been linked to outbreaks of plague in the region.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the bubonic plague is one of three types of plague, an infectious disease caused by the yersinia pestis bacteria. It is generally spreads through an infected flea bite and can, if left untreated, develop into septicemic plague or even pneumonic plague, which can be transmitted from human-to-human through infectious droplets. Symptoms of bubonic plague include sudden fever, headache, chills, weakness, and at least one swollen and painful lymph node, the CDC explains.

While bubonic plague is most closely associated with the Black Death, a deadly pandemic that occurred throughout Europe and Asia in the Middle Ages, cases are not entirely uncommon in China today. In fact, four suspected cases of plague — two of which were believed to be pneumonic plague — were reported in Inner Mongolia in November, according to Reuters. A Mongolian couple was also reported to have died of bubonic plague in May 2019, after eating the raw organs of an infected marmot, USA Today reported.

But plague can be successfully treated with modern antibiotics, according to the CDC. In fact, the agency has noted that antibiotics "greatly reduced" the death rate of plague in the United States, dropping it from 66% prior to the invention of antibiotics to 11% in 1990-2010. So, while the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic is still something to be concerned with, parents in the United States likely don't need to panic over a case of bubonic plague being found in Inner Mongolia.