Tens of thousands of people were trapped in Yumen when officials swiftly locked down the city after a man died of plague, highlighting China’s severe approach to the threat from disease.
he decision by Chinese authorities to quarantine parts of Yumen cityafter a local man died of the bubonic plague made headlines around the world. While four people were also diagnosed with the disease in Colorado this week – all were treated in hospital and quickly released – the 38-year-old Chinese farmer’s death brought a far more dramatic response from Yumen’s authorities.
On Tuesday, when authorities still had whole swaths of the city in lockdown, the state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reported from the scene. The reporter, wearing a face mask, stood in front of a roadblock guarded by two uniformed police officers, also wearing face masks. They had laid down orange traffic cones and tyre-puncture spike strips. The camera panned over warehouses stocked with rice, cooking oil and other emergency rations for the residents trapped behind the blockades – perhaps tens of thousands of people.
Two days later, the quarantine – centred on 151 residents who had been in close contact with the dead man – was lifted, after none were found to have developed any symptoms of the plague. Yet the blockades had been a “very unusual and unexpected step”, said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Just consider the social and economic implications for doing that in a major coastal city – I cannot recall the last time any provincial government did that.”
According to experts, Chinese authorities consider plague to be one of two Class 1 infectious diseases, along with cholera. When a person falls ill under their jurisdiction, they are entitled to label certain zones “infection areas” and seal them off.
By quarantining the city, Huang said, Chinese leaders could have been trying to avoid a crisis akin to the 1994 plague epidemic in Surat, India, and China’s own Sars outbreak in 2003, both of which caused panic and mass exodus. “Sars taught Chinese leaders the importance of acting swiftly when handling a disease outbreak,” he said. “But I think, in doing so, they also drew the wrong lesson — that quarantine was the magic bullet in addressing any major infectious disease outbreak.”
Yumen, meaning “Jade Gate”, is a city of about 100,000 people in the impoverished northwestern province of Gansu. It is known as a kongcheng or “hollow city” – aside from oilfield workers and a few small-time traders, few people stay there long-term. Shots on state television gave brief glimpses of the city itself: a few drab brick buildings and leafy trees flanking wide roads, criss-crossed with police tape. People wearing white overalls and respirators stood in clusters, spraying disinfectant on the road.
On 13 July, a farmer surnamed Wang picked up a dead marmot on a grassy plain where his animals were grazing, chopped it up, and fed it to his dogs. That night, Wang came down with a fever, according to the Beijing News. On 15 July, his illness suddenly intensified, and he was immediately rushed to Yumen’s Old City District People’s Hospital. He died the following morning.
National-level health authorities arrived in Yumen the day after Wang’s death to survey the scene. They quickly quarantined 151 people who had been in contact with Wang, including the medical personnel who treated him. They blocked entry and exit points to three parts of the city, as well as the field where Wang contracted the disease.
“Right now, you can’t enter or exit the Yumen Old City area, and the oilfield workers who were originally supposed to go back to Jiuquan City on holiday can only stay on their shifts,” a Yumen oilfield worker named Li Zhen told the Beijing News.
The World Health Organisation’s China office praised the Chinese government’s handling of the case. “The Chinese authorities notified WHO of the case of plague in Gansu province, as per their requirements under the International HealthRegulations,” it said in a statement to the Guardian. “The national health authorities have advised us that they have determined this to be an isolated case, though they are continuing to monitor the patient’s close contacts.”
The three forms of plague are caused by the same bacterium, Yersinia pestis.Bubonic plague develops in the lymph nodes and is less virulent and contagious than pneumonic plague, which develops in the lungs. These two diseases – along with the rarer “septicemic plague” – caused the Black Death, which wiped out at least a third of the European population in the mid-14th century. Plague is preventable with small doses of antibiotics.
About 1,000 confirmed or probable cases of human plague occurred in the US between 1900 and 2010, most of them in the arid southwest, according to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website. “Plague epidemics have occurred in Africa, Asia and South America, but most human cases since the 1990s have occurred in Africa,” it said. Among these cases, most go unreported.