Pneumonic plague—a deadly airborne disease similar to septicemic plague and bubonic plague—has broken out on Uganda’s border with Democratic Republic of Congo and several fatalities have already been reported, according to the World Health Organization.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Pneumonic plague occurs when the bacterium Yersinia pestis infects the lungs. The Y. Pestis bacteria is usually found in small mammals and their fleas, and humans are most commonly infected through flea bites, unprotected contact with bodily fluids or contaminated materials and the inhalation of droplets or small particles from a patient with pneumonic plague.
“This type of plague can spread from person to person through the air. Transmission can take place if someone breathes in aerosolized bacteria,” the CDC says.
“Pneumonic plague is also spread by breathing in Y. pestis suspended in respiratory droplets from a person (or animal) with pneumonic plague.
According to the WHO, Uganda’s Health Ministry reported two probable cases of the illness in Zombo district on March 5 after a 35-year-old woman died and her 23-year-old cousin reported similar symptoms.
Further investigation revealed the dead woman had lived in Atungulei village in Congo’s Ituri province, and her 4-year-old child had died days beforehand. Finding her sick at her child’s burial, her relatives took her to Uganda for treatment.
The cousin’s symptoms raised suspicions of plague and a preliminary rapid diagnostic test was positive for the disease.
Some 55 people, including 11 health workers and people who took part in the dead woman’s funeral, had been identified as high risk contacts and were being followed up.
Three other people reportedly died of similar symptoms in Congo, the WHO said, and Congolese authorities were investigating. Plague is endemic in Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Peru, according to the WHO. Congolese health authorities are already fighting a major outbreak of Ebola further south in Ituri and North Kivu provinces.