Travellers from Mozambique are screened at the airport. Picture: REUTERS
Travellers from Mozambique are screened at the airport. Picture: REUTERS

The World Health Organisation on Thursday reported that SA is on the watch list for plague‚ as there is travel between SA and Madagascar.

TimesLIVE spoke to Prof Lucille Blumberg‚ consultant at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD)‚ about the facts of the plague.

1. Calm down and don’t call it the Black Death: Scientists don’t call even call the disease the Black Plague anymore. "It is just called the plague."

Blumberg explained that the "black plague" and the words "black death" refer to the disease in the Middle Ages‚ when it killed millions of people in Europe. But 1346 was before the age of antibiotics.

In the 14th century‚ people’s fingers and toes may have gone black due to the infection in their blood. Today plague is a treatable disease with commonly used antibiotics.

2. The disease has not spread across borders in three months: the plague has been in Madagascar since August‚ where there have been 124 deaths‚ and not one case has spread to any neighbouring countries.

The Seychelles public healthcare system is so well run‚ it picked up a suspected case‚ but confirmed through tests the patient didn’t have the plague.

This shows the level of preparation in neighbouring countries to detect possible cases‚ says Blumberg. "SA needs to be prepared and vigilant and we are."

3. If you haven’t been to Madagascar‚ you have practically no risk of getting plague‚ says Blumberg.

4. SA is already prepared to detect a case‚ if it arrives here. SA has one direct flight a week from Madagascar, and travellers are screened at the airport for fever or cough. Anyone sick will be sent to the airport clinic for tests. Madagascar is screening all travellers leaving the country and Blumberg says this is working.

The NICD has specialised testing available to detect the plague. If there is a case in SA‚ the country has good epidemiologists who would trace the patient’s relatives and colleagues, and offer preventative antibiotics.

5. If you go to Madagascar and get sick‚ see a doctor. There is a serious plague in Madagascar and people have died‚ but Blumberg says this is primarily because sick people are not getting treatment in time. They may not know they have plague and think they have flu or a cough.

So if you go to Madagascar and develop a cough‚ fever or swollen groin‚ go to the doctor without delay. Travellers to Madagascar should apply insect repellent as the disease is spread by fleas.

6. Antibiotics work. In an age of increasing resistance to antibiotics‚ plague remains treatable with commonly available antibiotics. Blumberg says: "Plague is not resistant to antibiotics."

7. What you should really be worried about: malaria. Blumberg says a traveller is more likely to get malaria in Madagascar than plague‚ and travellers must take prophylactic malaria medication. She says travellers may come back from Madagascar with a fever and think they have plague‚ when they actually have malaria. This may mean the malaria is not detected in time‚ which can be deadly.