A rash of bubonic plague infections is sweeping through Madagascar, raising fears of a black plague epidemic that could cost countless lives. Already, 256 cases were reported last year, causing at least 60 deaths.

Madagascar Plague

The disease is currently spreading through Madagascar’s dilapidated and crowded prison system. Since rats and fleas can easily move in and out of prisons, experts fear that it is only a matter of time before the disease spreads to nearby towns and villages. If and when this happens, the death toll could rise dramatically.

The International Red Cross and other health organizations are now working to bring the outbreak under control. Limited resources and the difficulty of stopping the spread of a disease among dense prison populations, however, is complicating efforts. Health experts now fear that the situation could worsen unless proper steps are taken to eradicate the disease.

The plague which is spread by fleas carried by rats

For those of you wondering why an outbreak that infects “only” 256 people, it’s important to understand that the bubonic plague is one of the deadliest diseases in history. The plague, which is spread by fleas and carried by rats, has killed tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of people throughout history. In the 14th century alone, the bubonic plague is estimated to have killed some 75 million people. In Europe alone it is estimated that 1/3 of the population died from the plague.

Left untreated, bubonic plague will cause casualties in about 50 percent of cases. Even with antibiotic treatment, the mortality rate can be as high as 15 percent. And there is always the worry that a super strand of plague could be developed that would prove resistant to treatment. The plague is particularly notorious for the suffering it causes in victims. Beyond fevers, chills, and muscle cramps, the disease can also cause seizures, and gangrene in extremities.

The disease has largely been wiped out in developed countries due to proactive efforts to kill off rats and fleas, and other public heath initiatives. In poorer countries, however, the plague occasionally rears its ugly head. African countries, including Madagascar, account for some 90 percent of reported cases per year.

The black plague is a relatively rare disease

The black plague is a relatively rare disease but the number of reported incidents is increasing. In 2012 twelve people in Peru were killed by the disease. In August a 15 year old herder in Kyrgyzstan also died from the plague. While these cases remain isolated, health officials are worried none-the-less.

A squirrel was also found to be infected in California in July, though so far no people have come down with the disease. Officials temporarily closed camp grounds as a precaution. An average of 7 cases of bubonic plague are reported in the United States each year, with the majority of them occurring in the South West United States. In 984 alone some 40 cases were reported.

Efforts to kill off plague carrying animals

Health officials are not currently worried about the plague spreading through developed countries. Efforts to kill off plague carrying animals, along with adequate medical facilities should keep incidents isolated. In developing countries, however, the risk of a major outbreak is very real, as is seen the situation in Madagascar.