Plague Outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo

At least 61 people died in February during an outbreak of the pneumonic plauge in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

About 350 people who worked in a mine in the northern Oriental province were infected with the disesae earlier this year, with at least 61 of them ultimately succumbing to the disease.

The pneumonic plague is the rarest and most deadly of the three types of plague. Unlike bubonic and septicimic plague, the pneumonic form of the disease can be passed from person to person through infected droplets transmitted by coughing or sneezing.

According to the World Health Organization, it is almost always fatal if not treated, but responds well to antibiotics. Unfortunately, the Democratic Republic of Congo is still a relatively chaotic place after the end of its four-year civil war in 2002, and more than 2,000 people who worked at the mine quickly left and dispersed after the outbreak of the disease became widely known.

Plague, of course, used to be a major worldwide killer, famously wiping out a significant proportion of the European population in the late medieval period. The World Health Organization reports that in 2003 there were only about 2,000 cases of the disease worldwide, but almost all of those occurred in Africa.


Plague outbreak kills 60 in Congo. The BBC, February 18, 2005.

DR Congo plague outbreak spreads. The BBC, February 23, 2005.

Plague Outbreak in Eastern Congo. Cynthia Kirk, Voice of America, March 2, 2005.

Deadly Plague Outbreak Feared in Congo . Craig Timberg, Washington Post, February 18, 2005.

Locust invasions on West Africa. IRIN News, December 2004.

Heska Animal Research on Plague Published in Vaccine

Veterinary products company Heska recently announced the publication of its research into a vaccine designed to prevent the spread of plague in animals.

In the past, Heska has collaborated with the U.S.G.S. National Wildlife Health Center on experimental vaccines to prevent plague in prairie dogs using a recombinant agent that uses raccoon poxvirus vectors to induce an immune response in the animals against plague. The raccoon poxvirus is modified to make the animal’s immune system believe it has been exposed to the plague bacterium.

In research published in the March issue of Vaccine, Heska researchers describe their results in using the same technique to immunize mice against plague. According to a press release by the company, “After immunization, mice raise a potent immune response against the foreign bacterial protein that prevents clinical signs of the plague.”

Although plague is no longer the sort of threat to humanity that it once was, plague is still widespread in wild rodent populations such as prairie dogs and mice, and people in North America and elsewhere continue to die every year after being exposed to infected animals. Very few people exposed to the plague bacteria will survive if not treated with antibiotics within the first 24 hours.

Heska’s researcher is aimed at eventually finding a vaccine for the disease that could be delivered orally to wild animal populations by embedding it in baits left in areas heavily populated and trafficked by rodents likely to carry the disease.


Heska Announces Publication of Plague Vaccine Studies. PRNewswire, March 31, 2003.

Vaccine development for plague. Medscape Infectious Diseases, 4(2), 2002.