Pneumonic Plague in the D.R.C. Causes Mass Exodus

Outbreak Began Last December But WHO Just Received Notification

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo an outbreak of the pneumonic plague in a diamond mine has killed 61 people and precipitated a frightened exodus of thousands more.

Two thousand of the 7,000 miners working in Zobia, north of Kisangani, one of Congo’s biggest cities and major trading center on the Congo River have fled since the beginning of the outbreak; according to the BBC, another 350 more known miners have been infected.

The World Health Organization dispatched a team of health experts this weekend to try to contain the disease and quarantine those infected.

“There is a risk that some patients in incubation run away and maybe arrive in Kisangani. So it is very important to inform health care workers to alert them of the risk of admission of highly contagious patients,” Eric Bertherat, head of the WHO team, told reporters.

Bertherat also said that many of the infected miners fled to their native villages but died in travel as there seems to be evidence in fresh tombs along the way.

As reported by the BBC, the outbreak began late last December but the WHO was notified only last week.

While bubonic plague is widespread and even common in many parts of Africa this particular pneumonic form of the disease is highly contagious and can kill its victim in only 48 hours.  Pneumonic plague is much deadlier than the bubonic form because it fills the lungs and the patient essentially dies of oxygen deficit, says WHO expert May Chu.

The plague is usually spread among rodents by fleas but can also be spread to humans through infected rodent and flea bites.  The pneumonic form, which is what has emerged in the former Zaire, can then be transmitted between humans through respiratory droplets but is normally easy to treat with antibiotics; on the contrary it is quite deadly when left untreated.

Although the location from which the outbreak originated is known, cases are still developing in the mine in Zobia due to the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which the miners are working.  Health officials are also finding it increasingly difficult to reach the remote mine currently under the control of an unidentified armed group, which requires U.N. security clearance.

“In this case, because it is in an area which is relatively unstable, there hasn’t been any opportunity to initiate plague control activities, so the outbreak has grown relatively large,” WHO spokeswoman Christine McNab said.