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Posted on: May 18, 2019 at 9:50 pm
Last updated: May 23, 2019 at 1:22 pm

An unsuspecting Mongolian couple contracted the plague after eating raw rodent meat. The region the couple was visiting in the Bayan- Ölgii province (which borders China and Russia) went under quarantine for almost a week, trapping tourists there during the interim.

The 118 people who had come into contact with the couple were isolated and treated as a preventative measure. These included tourists from South Korea, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, and Sweden. Travelers from Germany, Russia, and the U.S. were also barred in the quarantine, which is expected to be lifted once no other plague cases are reported.

“After the quarantine [was declared] not many people, even locals, were in the streets for fear of catching the disease,” says Sebastian Pique, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer.

Raw Meat for Good Health?

In that region, the raw kidneys from Marmot are believed to be beneficial for one’s health. Unfortunately, these rodents are known carriers of the bacterium Yersinia pestis (the plague germ). Therefore, hunting marmots was made illegal. It’s somewhat ironic (and unfortunate) that the raw innards of these rodents somehow became glorified into having medicinal value.  It’s a dangerous myth that kills at least one Mongolian a year from the plague.

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We know eating raw meat of any kind can be hazardous. It may not transmit the plague, but raw meats can harbor other kinds of dangerous bacteria, like salmonella or E. coli,  that is destroyed through the cooking process. These germs can cause digestive issues like stomachaches, diarrhea, vomiting, and even fever, while some can lead to more serious issues like kidney failure, blood infection, and sometimes paralysis. [1] [2]

The Black Death

The Black Death was a bacterial infection that spread throughout Europe and Asia during the 14th century and killed about 60% of Europe’s population.  It lingered on for centuries with occasional outbreaks, such as the Great Plague of London in 1665–66. Today, it is possible to treat it with antibiotics, but it is still a highly contagious disease. [3]

The cause of the plague was found in Hong Kong in 1894, in the bacteria called Yersinia pestis. Researchers sourced the bacteria to rodents and fleas from the fleabites on human plague victims. The animals that can transmit the disease include mice, chipmunks, prairie dogs, rabbits, camels, and squirrels, but rats are the most hazardous. [4]

The 3 Types of Plague

1. The Bubonic plague

This is the most common form of the disease, named after the swollen lymph nodes—known as buboes—in the groin, armpit, or neck area. This is commonly spread through bites from diseased fleas. The bacteria travel through the lymph nodes closest to the infected bite and can spread to other parts of the body. This can lead to septicemic or pneumonic plague if not treated with antibiotics.

2. Septicemic plague

This type is when the bacteria spread directly into the bloodstream. It can be transmitted by fleabites, contact with infected animals or people, and consuming raw or improperly cooked meats that are infected with the bacterium. Patients experience fever, extreme fatigue, abdominal pain, shock, and sometimes internal bleeding. This causes skin and other tissues to turn black, especially on the digits and nose. Septicemic plague can be one’s first symptom of the infection or the result of an untreated bubonic case.

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The unfortunate Mongolian couple died of this type of plague [7]. The septicemic plague can force the body to go into shock soon after transmission, effectively shutting down organ function.

3. Pneumonic plague

This is the most contagious type of plague. Other forms of the plague can develop into this if it spreads to the lungs. This is when the disease could be transmitted directly to another person through airborne respiratory droplets. Its victims develop fever, fatigue, and pneumonia with chest pain, coughing, and sometimes watery or bloody mucus. [5] [6]

The Plague Today

Today, the death rate of the plague has been reduced to 11%, an uncommon but still existing threat. [5]

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The last serious outbreak was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2006. Around 50 people died.

Other countries reported smaller cases in recent years, including the U.S., China, Vietnam, India, and—as demonstrated by the recent quarantine—Mongolia. [4] In recent decades, 1–17 plague instances are reported each year in the U.S. Worldwide, there are between 1,000 to 2,000 cases a year. [6]

How to Prevent the Plague

With modern day medical knowledge and technology, the plague is not the death warrant it was during the Dark Ages. Plague patients can recover if the disease is caught early and are given the strong, effective course of antibiotics. Treatment usually includes antibiotics such as gentamicin or streptomycin, IV fluids, O2 and breathing support [8].

Proper sanitation, cooking temperatures, and pest control are major factors to prevent outbreaks. The fourteenth century was a perfect candidate for an epidemic with rampant uncleanliness and rat-infestations. [4]

Today, plague reports are most commonly from rural-type areas, especially with large wild rodent populations where bacteria could be present. [5]

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Sarah Biren
Founder of The Creative Palate
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender. Her blog The Creative Palate shares the nutrition and imagination of her recipes for others embarking on their journey to wellbeing.

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