Tags: Bubonic | Plague | Warnings | from | South | Africa | Ignored

Bubonic Plague Warnings from South Africa Ignored

Sunday, 13 May 2001 12:00 AM

The warning of bubonic plague was issued by Gerhaard Verdoorn, Johannesburg-based chairman of the authoritative Poison Working Group of South Africa -- affiliated to the Endangered Wilflife Trust.

Verdoorn warns that outbreaks of bubonic plague have already been reported in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe -- and that South Africa is also at high risk.

Experts like Verdoorn point out that South Africa's rat-infested squalor in the squatter towns and inner cities -- and its millions of HIV-infected people -- form the perfect combination for a return of bubonic plague to Africa.

Verdoorn said his organisation had been getting close to 100 complaints a day from people around South Africa battling huge rat infestations.

Ivan Toms, Cape Town's medical officer of health, dismissed these suggestions of bubonic plague outbreaks due to the burgeoning rat population as "wild".

However Verdoorn insists that these conditions are "ripe for a return of bubonic plague", also known as the Black Death, which destroyed a quarter of Europe's population in the 14th century, wiping out 25 million people, and also invaded South Africa's harbour regions during the 19th century.

In some parts of South Africa, such as Coega in the Eastern Cape, bubonic plague is still endemic among local rodent populations and has never been eradicated.

Initial symptoms of the plague -- which is caused by bacteria in the gut of by the rat flea, are similar to flu and pneumonia. However, without treatment people die from the infection, which manifests itself in huge black boils ("bubo's) in the arm pits and groin.

Verdoorn said outbreaks of bubonic plague had already been reported in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

People monitoring Cape Town's anti-crime closed-circuit TV cameras told the Cape Argus daily newspaper they had also seen rats bigger than squirrels racing around the city's Grand Parade, with its hundreds of market stalls.

"I'd say that even a cat confronted with one of these fellows would walk away," he said.

Verdoorn believes conditions are ripe for a return of bubonic plague.

"We have had calls from the Cape Flats and farming communities alike, who all say they have been overrun by rats and attacking their children," he said.

Apart from the threat to human life, loss of animal feed and field crops, rats also are destroying bird life. "The Cape Wagtail is particularly at risk, as rats eat the eggs and attack the chicks."

Toms agreed there might be a rat problem -- but claimed Verdoorn's warnings about a possible plague outbreak were "wild".

"We're very aware that we have a rat problem, especially along the Atlantic seaboard and in the city because of all the restaurants, but it poses no public health risk."

Toms said Cape Town had not had a case of bubonic plague for 60 years, when bubonic plague had broken out in the District Six township next to the harbour district.

The region's stormwater drains were regularly fumigated, he said -- unlike Greater Johannesburg, where that city's council had decided to stop all fumigation everywhere -- because they feared poisoning homeless people.

"We're also busy with a blitz on rats and cockroaches, the second one this year, and we're working pro-actively with restaurants, encouraging them to leave food only in rat-proof areas." Toms said people on private property with rat infestations had to take responsibility themselves.

"We take responsibility for council areas and public open spaces such as stormwater drains, but our resources are thin and we also have to deal with infestations in informal settlements (the South African term referring to the country's many thousands of squatter camps and shanty towns)," he explained.

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The warning of bubonic plague was issued by Gerhaard Verdoorn, Johannesburg-based chairman of the authoritative Poison Working Group of South Africa -- affiliated to the Endangered Wilflife Trust. Verdoorn warns that outbreaks of bubonic plague have already been reported...
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2001-00-13
Sunday, 13 May 2001 12:00 AM
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