Marmots, China and the Plague


By Richard Stabler

Chinese authorities have lifted a nine-day quarantine on a town in the country’s northwest that saw a resident die of the plague. The victim is thought to have caught the disease from a dead marmot, which he fed to his dog. Shocking though this might sound, plague did not die out with the Black Death of the Middle Ages for which it is most famous.

Plague, caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis is primarily a pathogen of rodents, in particular rats. It spreads between animals through biting fleas (which the rats carry). When the host rat dies from the plague, the fleas then seek out a new host. Occasionally the bacteria can be transmitted to other animals – including marmots – as well as to humans. The wiping out of large numbers of rodents has often preceded outbreaks of human infection.

Plague has shaped human civilisation through three major global outbreaks. It is estimated that the notorious 14th century pandemic, known as the Black Death (1347-1351) killed over half of the world’s population, 30–50% of the European population, and reduced England’s population by 1.4 million, leaving approximately 2.8 million survivors in only a five-year period. Plague was present in Europe and around the Mediterranean every year between 1346 and 1671. An outbreak between 1479–80 killed up to 1 in 5 people in England and outbreaks occurred periodically until the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Symptoms: bubonic and pneumonic

Plague symptoms depend on how the bacteria has been transmitted. A flea bite gives rise to the “Bubonic” form, with the swollen black “bubos” or enlarged lymph nodes near the bite site. Gangrene of the fingers, toes, lips and nose is another common symptom. Symptoms appear suddenly, usually two to five days after exposure to the bacteria and can include vomiting of blood and extreme pain, caused by decay of the skin while the patient is still alive.

Pneumonic plague develops when the bacteria reaches the lungs. It is contagious – so if someone has pneumonic plague and coughs or sneezes, droplets containing plague bacteria can be inhaled by others nearby. Initially symptoms are fairly general with headaches, weakness and coughing, but death rapidly follows in as little as 24 hours.

The pneumonic form of the disease is always fatal if left untreated. This foregone conclusion of rapidly succumbing to the bacteria after catching it has resulted in Y. pestis being categorised as an agent of biowarfare.


  1. Thank you, Graham. The most troubling part of this article about a man dying from the plague was definitely the incorrect use of the plural form of bacterium.

  2. It wasn’t caused by a bacteriUM in any case one bacterium wouldn’t have done much harm on its own. The grammatical problem was the use of the indefinite article.

  3. I see the lady has had her boils lanced but the gentleman has not. I wonder if the man in the back is throwing her puss soaked and burnt rags into the wind before he digs into his next patient. Actually, I don’t wonder that. Nothing on the telly.

  4. The Plague is still around in varoius parts of the world!

    A retired welder has described how he came within hours of an agonising death after contracting all three deadly forms of bubonic plague from a cat bite.

    Paul Gaylord, 61, relived in vivid detail how the horrifying symptoms of the Black Death began to take over his body – gradually turning his hands black.

    Mr Gaylord, who lives in a remote part of Oregon, 12 miles from the small town of Prineville, spent nearly a month attached to a life support machine as his body battled to fight the deadly illness.

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