Fatal plague outbreak in Madagascar: Pneumonic plague has health officials scrambling

Officials are struggling to contain a widespread and deadly outbreak of the plague that’s been wreaking havoc in Madagascar since late August.  At least 45 deaths have been attributed to the outbreak, with more than 385 confirmed cases reported in 27 out of the country’s 114 districts.

The outbreak is worrisome because a majority of the confirmed illnesses include cases of the pneumonic plague, which can be transmitted through the air when an infected person coughs, and is 100 percent fatal if left untreated.

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In response, the Malagasy Red Cross said it mobilized 700 volunteers to work on community education, tracing people who have been in contact with plague victims and other health initiatives. On the ground, authorities have been taking measures against citizens spreading false information about the outbreak on social media, including at least one arrest for a false report posted on Facebook, BBC News reported.

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) delivered 1.2 million doses of antibiotics to the island and authorized $1.5 million in funding to help combat the illness, Business Insider reported. Authorities have placed a ban on large public gatherings in the capital, while the government has been working to disinfect school classrooms and hand out surgical masks. Prison visits in the worst hit areas have also been suspended.

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Madagascar typically sees around 400 cases of the bubonic plague each year, with the illness typically spread through flea bites and contact with infected bodily fluids. WHO said cases of the plague typically begin popping up between September and April, but the current outbreak started even earlier and has struck in major cities like Antananarivo and Toamasina.

“The risk of the disease spreading is high at national level because it is present in several towns and this is just the start of the outbreak,” a WHO official said, according to BBC News.

The outbreak has been traced back to a 31-year-old man who died while on a public service vehicle in eastern Madagascar. Two others who had come into contact with the man later died. It gained widespread attention following the September death of a Seychellois basketball coach who had traveled to Madagascar for a tournament. As of Sunday, Seychelles national air carrier announced that it had temporarily suspended services between the region and Madagascar.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.