“There is a risk of a human plague epidemic spreading in this city,” Bayannur’s local health commission said in a statement.
Over the past year, China has reported five cases of the disease associated with some of the deadliest pandemics in human history. The plague caused the Black Death that devastated the population of medieval Europe and repeatedly afflicted Asia, but it has largely been controlled since the mid-20th century.
A World Health Organization spokeswoman in Geneva said Tuesday that the plague case count in China was low and the agency did not consider it high risk, but it was monitoring the situation, Reuters reported.
Officials at Inner Mongolia’s regional center for disease control have warned that the plague may have long been circulating locally and there is risk of human-to-human transmission and “long-distance transmission,” according to a statement posted online by the regional government last month.
Under the new measures announced in Bayannur, which will remain in effect until 2021, suspected cases of plague among human patients or sick and dead marmots must be reported immediately. The city of Beijing also urged residents on Monday not to go camping in Inner Mongolia, a vast strip of scenic grassland and desert that urban dwellers often visit.
Because the plague and cholera are the only two diseases that fall under China’s highest classification of transmissible diseases that require the most urgent countermeasures — coronavirus is considered second-tier — parts of the northern grasslands could reenter lockdown just weeks after the country began to recover from covid-19.
The precautions against the plague are a reminder of the public health challenges facing Chinese authorities. Last week, Chinese state-affiliated researchers published a paper warning about a new type of swine flu that has been discovered in pig farmers with the potential to cause a pandemic.
So far, China’s official case numbers remain low with five plague diagnoses since last year; four patients came from Inner Mongolia and recovered normally while one man in Gansu Province died. Chinese authorities have not released details about the causes or circumstances of the cases.
In the adjacent country of Mongolia, farther north, two herders died last year after eating marmot meat and contracting the disease.
The plague, which researchers generally believe originated from the Asian steppes, killed tens or hundreds of millions of people in several deadly waves throughout history. One particularly deadly wave in the 14th century traveled along the Mongol Empire’s flourishing trading routes and killed one-third of the population in Europe in what became known as the Black Death.
The disease continues to surface periodically around the world. More than 300 cases were found in a minor outbreak in Madagascar last year, killing about 30. The plague, which is carried by rats and fleas, is usually treatable with antibiotics in its “bubonic” form, which attacks lymph nodes and causes fevers and boils. But the bacteria can kill quickly if it infects the respiratory system or bloodstream in rarer conditions known as pneumonic and septicemic plague.
The United States averages about seven cases a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Chinese officials say they have largely suppressed the disease since the 1950s and recorded about 30 cases in the last decade.
When two patients from Inner Mongolia were diagnosed with the plague in a downtown Beijing hospital in November, causing a minor panic in the capital, Feng Zijian, the deputy director of China’s Center for Disease Control, told the public not be “unsettled,” saying the disease is rare and treatable with antibiotics.
Officials are again appealing for calm this week as new scares emerged: Chinese research showed a variation of swine flu has already jumped into the human population of pig farmers in two northern provinces.
The new variation of the H1N1 swine flu, called G4, has “the essential hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus,” according to paper that was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and authored by a team of veterinary researchers and epidemiologists including George Gao, head of China’s Center for Disease Control.
Some Chinese health officials and international experts have downplayed the danger of G4, noting that it has been circulating for years without causing an outbreak in humans.
White House coronavirus adviser Anthony S. Fauci testified in the Senate last week that U.S. officials were “keeping an eye” on the G4 virus but he did not consider it an immediate threat.
Wang Yuan and Lyric Li in Beijing contributed to this report.