A form of plague that infects humans from the air they breathe, pneumonic plague, has killed 61 diamond miners since late December in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the United Nations public health agency said today.
The confirmed deaths occurred among some 7,000 miners working at a very unsanitary mine in Zobia in Ituri district, but there could be up to 300 other cases, the World Health Organization's (WHO) team leader Dr. Eric Bergerat told a news conference in Geneva.
About two-thirds of the miners ran away from the mine and had to be contacted in a radius of 200 kilometres so they could get chemo-prophylaxis in the hope of heading off a secondary outbreak, he said by phone, but an unknown number of them died in the forest or on the trail.
The local staff of the DRC Ministry of Health gave the early cases rapid diagnostic tests which confirmed the plague and they then used the national protocol for treatment of plague, which was the appropriate case management, Dr. Bergerat said.
WHO would send in a team of 10 to help comb through nearby villages, if the security situation permitted, and make sure all the cases have been isolated and treated, he said.
Only 2 per cent of people infected with plague usually have the pneumonic form, Dr. May Chu of the WHO's Alert and Response Operations said.
The bubonic plague, caught from bites by infected fleas, generally total 85 per cent of cases and another 12 per cent are blood-borne, caught when humans with open hand wounds touch infected animal tissue, she said.
"Incubation for pneumonic plague is anywhere from two to six days," she said, because the lungs fill up and the patient dies from a lack of oxygen.