7 reasons why you don't need to panic about the plague

27 October 2017 - 13:16 By Katharine Child
Medicine has advanced a lot since the days of the black death - the plague can now be treated with antibiotics.
Medicine has advanced a lot since the days of the black death - the plague can now be treated with antibiotics.
Image: 123rf/Andrey Kiselev

The World Health Organisation on Thursday reported that South Africa is on the watch list for plague‚ as there is travel between South Africa and Madagascar.

TimesLIVE spoke to Professor Lucille Blumberg‚ consultant at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases‚ about the facts around plague.

1) Calm down and don't call it the Black Death

Scientists don't call even call the disease the Black Plague anymore. "It is just called the plague." Blumberg explained that the "black plague" and the words "black death" refer to the disease in the Middle Ages‚ when it killed millions of people in Europe.

But 1346 was before the age of antibiotics. In the 14th century‚ people's fingers and toes may have gone black due to the infection in their blood. Today plague is a treatable disease with commonly used antibiotics.

2) The disease has not spread across borders in 3 months

The plague has been in Madagascar since August‚ with about 124 deaths‚ and not one case has spread to any neighbouring countries.

The Seychelles public healthcare system is so well run‚ it picked up a suspected case‚ but confirmed through tests the patient didn't have the plague. This shows the level of preparation in neighbouring countries to detect possible cases‚ says Blumberg. "South Africa needs to be prepared and vigilant and we are."

3) If you haven't been to Madagascar‚ you have practically no risk of getting plague‚ said Blumberg.

4) South Africa is already prepared to detect a case‚ if it arrives here.

South Africa has one direct flight a week from Madagascar and travellers are screened at the airport for fever or cough and anyone sick will be sent to the airport clinic for tests. Madagascar is screening all travellers leaving the country and Blumberg says this is "working".

The NICD has specialised testing available to detect the plague. If there is a case in South Africa‚ the country has good epidemiologists who would trace the patient's relatives and colleagues and offer preventative antibiotics.

5) If you go to Madagascar and get sick‚ see a doctor

There is a serious plague in Madagascar and people have died‚ but Blumberg explained that this is primarily because sick people are not getting treatment in time. They may not know they have plague and think they have the flu or a cough. So if you go to Madagascar and develop a cough‚ fever or swollen groin‚ go to the doctor without delay. Travellers to Madagascar should apply insect repellent as the disease is spread by fleas.

6) Antibiotics work

In an age of increasing resistance to antibiotics‚ plague remains treatable with commonly available antibiotics. Blumberg said: "Plague is not resistant to antibiotics."

7) What you should really be worried about: Malaria

Blumberg said a traveller is more likely to get malaria in Madagascar than plague‚ and travellers must take prophylactic malaria medication. She said travellers may come back from Madagascar with a fever and think they have plague‚ when they actually have malaria. This may mean the malaria is not detected in time‚ which can be deadly.


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