Possible Outbreak Of Bubonic Plague As Dead Rat Tests Positive To Plague Antibodies


South Africans must be very careful as the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has revealed its intentions to take necessary measures in order to prevent the outbreak of bubonic plague in humans.

This desperate measure follows the discovery of a dead rat that was found in an informal settlement in Mayibuye in Tembisa and which tested positive for plague antibodies on 16 March

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The discovery was made in the course of a monitoring programme that the NICD together with environmental health services initiated to test for various rodent-borne diseases. During the programme, thirteen rats were collected from the informal settlement, and one out of thirteen tested positive for plague antibodies.

Bubonic Plague

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the plague which was known as the Black Death in the 14th century in Europe is caused by the bacteria Yersinia Pestis which is usually spread between rats through bites and fleas. Humans get infected through fleas carrying the bacteria from rats. It killed millions of people as at least 30% to 60% of people with the bubonic plague die if it is left untreated.

The Way Forward

As a result of almost 4,000 Pikitup workers on strike, garbage has been left uncollected in Johannesburg. The striking workers are demanding for a R10 000 salary per month and also the removal of Pikitup head Amanda Nair. All attempts by the City of Johannesburg and other unions to stop the unprotected strike which has dragged on for five weeks proved abortive.

John Frean who is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Opportunistic, Tropical and Hospital Infections at the NICD sees the discovery as a good reason to intensify monitoring and control so as to prevent the disease from being transferred to humans which will be detrimental.

“Flea control to protect the community and intensified surveillance to detect further evidence of plague activity, have been instituted. The finding is an early indication that escalation of surveillance and control activities… are required.”

However, Frean pointed out that there is no urgent threat to humans yet judging from the results of the tests “no evidence of current infection, only of previous exposure,” he said

“The absence of unusual rodent mortality suggests that there is no outbreak of rodent plague in progress at present, and there is no immediate threat to human health.” But this does not mean we should relax and not take necessary precautions.

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According to the NICD, the last recorded outbreak of bubonic plague in South Africa was 34 years ago in the Eastern Cape region and people have been warned to stay away from rodents, dead or alive.

The Democratic Alliance has urged the government to come up with a plan to take care of refuse in informal settlements to prevent any possible outbreak of the disease.

Pest treatment of dumping grounds and nearby areas was suggested by Kate Lorimer, the DA’s Member of Gauteng Provincial Legislature for Safety and Security as a precaution.

Lorimer said if there was regular waste removal in townships, people would not resort to dumping as a behavioural issue.

“The residents in townships have created dumping grounds away from their homes precisely because of the infrequent refuse collection in their areas. We know that there isn’t enough space for bins around every corner, and we also know that the appointed bins are not enough to handle the waste in those areas.”

The City of Johannesburg said that contingency plans to clean up the City have been initiated following the ongoing unprotected strike by Pikitup workers. The plans will help keep the city clean pending when the striking workers resume.