Ask about plague at your travel health consultation

Plague sounds like something out of history – but people still get it worldwide, and travellers to USA, Asia, South America and Africa (particularly Madagascar) may be exposed. If there is a plague risk at your destination, you will hear about it at your travel health consultation and you can learn about the steps you need to take to avoid exposure.

What is plague

Plague has had a major role in shaping world history by causing pandemics that wiped out populations. During the 14th century, for example, it killed more than 50 million in Europe. There are three varieties of plague: bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic.

What is bubonic plague?

Bubonic plague is an infection caused by the bacteria Yersina pestis. The bacteria, which are usually found in small mammals such as rats, are transmitted by infected fleas. Bubonic plague is rarely spread person-to-person.

If untreated, 30 to 60% of patients will die. Bubonic plague results in painful, swollen lymph nodes in the armpits, groin or neck. These are buboes. Other symptoms include:

  • fever and chills
  • shortness of breath, coughing and blood-tainted sputum.

Plague is serious, and if you think you have it, get medical help: do not attempt to treat yourself. If these symptoms arise after you come home, tell your doctor that you have been to an area with a plague outbreak.

What is pneumonic plague?

If the infection spreads to the lungs, that’s pneumonic plague. This virulent form of plague is always fatal if untreated – but recovery rates are high if it is detected and treated within 24 hours. A pneumonic plague patient can give plague to others via respiratory droplets.

What is septicaemic plague?

Septicaemic plague is when untreated bubonic plague affects the bloodstream.

Should I worry about plague in Madagascar?

Plague is endemic in the central highlands of Madagascar – that is, it occurs there from time to time. The island, which lies in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa, draws travellers intrigued by its unique landscapes, varied ecosystems and incredible biodiversity. The annual plague season is September to April, with a bit of a surge in September and August.

At your travel health consultation you can ask about plague and any other health topic that is worrying you.

How can I protect myself from plague while travelling

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for plague, but there are some precautions you can take to avoid infection.

  • Protect yourself from flea bites by using an insect repellent containing at least 25% DEET.
  • Avoid contact with pneumonic plague patients and if you can’t avoid such contact, consult a healthcare professional.
  • Do not touch dead or dying animals.
  • Avoid crowded areas in regions with recent reports of pneumonic plague

More information

If you are travelling to Madagascar, check the World Health Organization’s plague factsheet to learn more about the risk of contracting plague. You can also ask your travel health adviser if you have any concerns about plague in Madagascar.

There is reliable information about plague on Travel Health Pro.