By Paul Goble
Still living with the coronavirus pandemic, Russians have been alarmed about the outbreak of bubonic plague in China and Mongolia and are expressing fears that it could spread first into parts of the Russian Federation adjoining those two countries and then into the rest of the country (lenta.ru/brief/2020/07/05/plague_2020/).
But experts like Viktor Maleyev, the chief epidemiologist of Russia’s Consumer Protection Agency, say that Russians should not be alarmed. There may be a few cases, but they won’t spread widely because there is a vaccine and effective treatment for those who may contract the disease (ria.ru/20200706/1573939538.html).
But those realities and the fact that the bubonic plague is typically spread by the bites of rats and other animals have not stopped headlines like “Will the Bubonic Plague Reach Moscow: Infection Specialists have Assessed the Risks” in newspapers like Komsomolskaya Pravda and the alarm such wording inevitably provokes (kp.ru/daily/27153.3/4248498/).
Residents of Tyva and the Altay, along the Russian border, are especially worried and have been told to avoid contact with certain animals and not to eat some of them lest they become infected (sibreal.org/a/30711383.html, mcx.rtyva.ru/events/ and 04.rospotrebnadzor.ru/index.php/press-center/press-reliz/12600-04062020.html).
Senior specialists like Gennady Onishchenko, an academician who earlier served as head of consumer protection affairs and is now a Duma deputy, says officials in these regions know what to do and that there is no danger that the bubonic plague could spread to European Russia or Moscow (vm.ru/health/812629-virusolog-nashe-morskoe-parohodstvo-ni-na-chem-ne-osnovano).
But Vladimir Nefelov, the chief specialist on infectious diseases at Moscow’s Federal Medical-Biological Agency, says that there is one danger that could make such optimism unjustified. That would be if the bubonic plague were to mutate and begin to spread from person to person rather than only via animals (svpressa.ru/blogs/article/270277/).
If that were to occur, then the bubonic plague could spread rapidly throughout Russia and more broadly, triggering a full-scale epidemic with deadly consequences: an untreated victim normally dies in about two days. Between 1921 and 1989, there were 3639 cases of bubonic plague in the USSR. Of these, 2060 died. But most of these were before World War II.
Now, with better treatment options, Nefelov says, only five to ten percent of those infected die.