Couple Dies of Plague, Sparks Outbreak Fears After Eating Raw Marmot

A Mongolian couple ate the raw, uncooked internal organs of a marmot—a large, squirrel-like rodent—in the belief that its kidney, stomach, and gall bladder would bring them good health.

However, according to health officials, the two died on May 1 when it turned out the marmot wasn’t so healthy.

Their deaths sparked fears of a local outbreak of the bubonic plague, leading to a six-day quarantine of 118 people, including locals and foreign tourists.

The town of Tsagaannuur, which lies near the border separating Mongolia from Russia and has a population of roughly 1,400, was sealed off from the outside world after the ethnic Kazakh couple contracted the old-fashioned bubonic plague from the infected marmot, according to Ariuntuya Ochirpurev, an official with the World Health Organization in the country’s capital Ulaanbaatar.

Sebastian Pique, a volunteer with the American Peace Corps, told Agence France-Presse:

“After the quarantine [was announced] not many people, even locals, were in the streets for fear of catching the disease.”

As of Tuesday, however, the quarantine was officially lifted, allowing scores of tourists to finally leave the area.

Luckily, no other cases of the bubonic plague have been reported since then, according to local governor Aipiin Gilimkhaan.

In Mongolia, about one person per year dies of the plague, usually through similar incidents of locals eating raw meat containing the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis, according to the National Center for Zoonotic Disease.

History is filled with cases of plague epidemics responsible for killing millions, including the Black Death in the Middle Ages that killed an estimated 50 million people.

Modern antibiotics have made such diseases manageable, however.

The bubonic plague is one of the most common forms of plague and is transmitted through infected fleas and animals, including rodents such as rats and squirrels, rabbits, and prairie dogs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC notes that human infections occur in parts of Africa, Asia and even in western regions of the United States.

Ken Gage of the CDC told NPR:

“What we see in the West is the fleas will crawl up to the entrance of the burrow and wait for a host to come by … If they get on another rodent that they can live on, then they’ve been successful. But they can also jump on humans or on dogs or coyotes or cats.”

In the late 1800s, millions of people died in China and Hong Kong before the connection was made with rodents, whose elimination drastically lowered the incidence of plague in the East Asian country.

The main symptom of bubonic plague is swollen, painful lymph nodes, usually in the armpit, neck, and groin areas, the CDC notes. This is often accompanied by fever, headache, chills, extreme fatigue, bleeding, and open sores. Death can arrive within a few short days.

An even more virulent type of plague is the pneumonic plague, which is transmitted between humans through coughing.

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