31 people dead in DR Congo plague outbreak

A total of thirty-one people have lost their lives in an outbreak of plague that erupted in northeastern DR Congo three months ago, health officials and experts said on Friday.

“We have more than 520 cases, of which more than 31 have been fatal,” Patrick Karamura, health minister in Ituri province, where plague is endemic, said.

The cases are the bubonic form of the disease, except for five cases of pneumonic plague and two of septicaemic plague, he said.

Anne Laudisoit, an epidemiologist with a New York-based NGO called Ecohealth Alliance, said the cases had surfaced between November 15th and December 13th in Biringi, in Ituri’s Aru Territory.

The average age of patients was 13, but this varied between three months and 73 years, she said.

The World Health Organization (Anne Laudisoit) issued an alert in July of a plague outbreak in Rethy, also in Ituri, where it advised that:

“Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for survival and reduction of complications. Appropriate diagnostic samples include blood cultures, lymph node aspirates if possible, and/or sputum, if indicated. Drug therapy should begin as soon as possible after the laboratory specimens are taken. Post-exposure prophylaxis is indicated in persons with known exposure to plague, such as close contact with a pneumonic plague patient or direct contact with infected body fluids or tissues. Duration of post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent plague is seven days.”

WHO further said that “Preventive measures include informing people when zoonotic plague is present in their environment and advising them to take precautions against flea bites and not to handle animal carcasses. People, especially health workers, should also avoid direct contact with infected tissues such as buboes, or close exposure to patients with pneumonic plague.”

The Plague has persisted in the province since it was first confirmed there in 1926.

A long-feared disease with biblical connotations, but treatable today with antibiotics, the plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis.

Laudisoit, who is in the area with a team of researchers, said an early sign of the latest outbreak came with the mass death of rats.

Germ-carrying fleas which live in the rats’ fur then look for other hosts in proximity, which are humans. The bacterium is then transmitted through flea bites.

This comes at a time when the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo is also struggling with episodic outbreaks of Ebola. Congo now has six confirmed Ebola cases and two deaths since it declared a resurgence of the disease on February 7.