GENEVA - As an outbreak of pneumonic plague worsens in Madagascar, the World Health Organization and other international agencies are working with the Ministry of Health to stop the spread of the deadly disease. The latest official figures put the number of cases at 231, including 33 deaths.
Pneumonic plague is a lung infection, transmitted through flea bites or from person to person through droplets in the air when someone coughs or sneezes. A person can die within 48 hours of the disease's onset if not treated with antibiotics.
In response to the crisis, the World Health Organization sent 1.2 million doses of antibiotics to Madagascar this week.
"These antibiotics are being given to health facilities and they are enough to treat 5,000 patients and protect up to 100,000 people who may have been exposed to disease," said Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the WHO. "We are also filling critical shortages in disinfection materials and personal protective equipment for health professionals and safe burials."
While plague is a recurring problem in Madagascar, this particular outbreak has triggered a nationwide panic because it has moved from remote rural areas into the cities, including the capital, Antananarivo.
To contain the spread, the International Red Cross Federation is releasing emergency funds to support the Malagasy Red Cross, which is mobilizing more than 700 community volunteers in response to the outbreak.
The volunteers will scale up community surveillance and contact tracing, and tell their communities about steps they must take to protect themselves.
"Getting the messages out into the community that treatment is available, that treatment is possible, but you need to receive the antibiotics as quickly as possible after developing symptoms is vital," said Julie Hall, the Red Cross director of health care. "In addition to that, if someone has had contact, close contact with someone with the symptoms, it is vital that they get the antibiotics as quickly as possible because that can stop them developing any symptoms."
Symptoms of pneumonic plague include coughing, fever, chest pain and difficulty breathing.
Despite the gravity of the outbreak, the World Health Organization does not advise any travel or trade restrictions on Madagascar. However, travelers are encouraged to educate themselves about the disease and, if they have any symptoms, go immediately to the nearest health facility.