Taxi drivers have been earning a small fortune by sneaking residents around roadblocks and out of a remote Chinese town cordoned off after an outbreak of pneumonic plague.

Local officials have denied that any residents of Ziketan, a mainly ethnically Tibetan region of the western Qinghai province, have tried to escape the area by evading police checkpoints set up on roads in a 17-mile radius of the mainly nomadic farming community of about 10,000 people.

Three people have died of the rare pneumonic plague, one of world's deadliest diseases. Another nine are undergoing treatment in isolation wards of a local hospital and one was yesterday reported to be in a critical condition.

One resident escaped to the neighbouring province of Gansu where the individual was picked up by police and placed in isolation in a hospital.

The individual escaped with a taxi driver who knew how to navigate his way around the police checkpoints. Hundreds of others are reported to have left by the same means while some walked out and others drove motorcycles across the plateau.

The going rate for a taxi out of Ziketan was 2,000 yuan $300 per car. The person who escaped to Gansu was accompanied by six other people, incuding the driver. That rate is effectively a fortune in China where a single ride in most small towns costs about 75 cents.

The occupants of the car — all Tibetans — were picked up by the police, most in the next town of Heka.

Tibetans have not been the only people trying to get out of town — even though there have been no reports of new cases and the World Health Organisation has said the outbreak has been contained.

Click here for more on this story from the Times of London.