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Libya reports bubonic plague

22nd June 2009

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has sent an investigative team to Libya after the North African country reported up to 18 suspected cases of bubonic plague.

World Health

Emerging diseases specialist John Jabbour said from Cairo that WHO did not yet have a complete picture of the situation, and had despatched a team to see how many cases had indeed been confirmed.

The WHO was responding to a request from the government in Tripoli for help, after Libyan health officials reported 16-18 cases of the disease.

Authorities in Egypt, meanwhile, said they had stepped up controls at their border with neighbouring Libya, to keep the "Black Death" away. The Libyan cases were reported just 125 kilometres (78 miles) from the Egyptian border.

Egyptian Health Minister Hatem el-Gabali said during a tour of inspection at the border that measures had already been taken to prevent the plague from crossing into Egypt.

"Egypt is free of the 'Black Death', and we are taking precautionary measures to prevent it from being transmitted into Egypt," he told local media. Egypt is currently fighting off an outbreak of H1N1 swine flu.

The disease is carried by rodents, where it continually resides, moving through animal populations via the bites of infected fleas.

Symptoms include black bumps that sometimes develop on victims' bodies, severe vomiting and fever.

WHO reports between 1,000 and 3,000 cases of bubonic plague every year, with around 100 to 200 people still dying of the disease annually worldwide. If not treated quickly with antibiotics, the patient can die within days of becoming infected.

WHO spokeswoman Aphaluck Bhatiasevi said an expert was on his way to Tubruq where he would help a government team study epidemiological data and check the reported cases.

If confirmed, it will be the first outbreak in that part of Libya for about 25 years. Libyan officials said two people had been treated and sent home. A further 10 were tested but did not in fact have the disease.

The bubonic form of the plague enters the skin through flea bites, giving rise to the black bumps, or bubons.

The United States typically sees 100-200 cases a year.

The "Black Death" pandemic of 1347 to 1351 was one of the deadliest recorded in human history, killing about 75 million people, according to some estimates, including more than a third of Europe's population.

That pandemic was thought to have begun in Asia, then spread into the Middle East, Africa and Europe, and is commonly believed to have been the bubonic plague. However, a recent alternative theory says it is more likely that an Ebola-like virus was the culprit.


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