An ethnic Kazakh couple living in the town of Tsagaannuur, which lies near the border of Mongolia and Russia triggered a quarantine in their town after they ate the raw meat of a marmot—a large squirrel-like rodent—and died of the plague. It was only after the 38-year-old border agent and his 37-year-old wife died of multiple organ failure that they were posthumously diagnosed as having bubonic plague. While many Mongolians believe that eating the uncooked innards of such animals is “good for health”, these rodents can be infected by a plague-causing bacterium.
After the couple died on May 1, leaving behind four children ranging in age from 9 months to 14 years, a quarantine was imposed on the county. A total of 118 people, including town folk, health-care workers and several others, risked getting the disease because they had come in close contact with the couple. They were isolated and given preventive antibiotics. An additional 28 people, which included foreign visitors from Switzerland, Sweden, Kazakhstan and South Korea, were quarantined at the border where the man worked, while the movement of the town’s estimated 1,300 residents was also largely limited.
“After the quarantine [was announced], not many people — even locals — were in the streets for fear of catching the disease,” Sebastian Pique, an American Peace Corps volunteer who has lived in the remote mountainous region for two years, told AFP.
The decision to place a quarantine came after officials grew worried that the husband and wife had contracted a case of pneumonic plague, which is easily transferable to other people through airborne droplets, said Ariuntuya Ochirpurev, who works with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Ulaanbaatar, to The Washington Post.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the symptoms of septicemic or bubonic plague include fever, chills, extreme weakness, abdominal pain, shock, and possibly bleeding into the skin and other organs; the infected person’s skin and other tissues can even turn dark and lead to death. If left untreated, cases of the plague have a 30 to 100 percent fatality rate, according to WHO.
Plague, which caused the devastating Black Death, is a disease that you would probably read about in a Victorian novel. It has historically wiped out millions of people in the Middle Ages and is estimated to have claimed the lives of 60 percent of the European population, with estimates saying the human death toll of that century rose to 200 million. Having caused close to 50,000 human cases during the last two decades, it is now categorised by WHO as a re-emerging disease, so it’s pretty damn scary. What’s also scary is that there have been at least nine reported cases like this one in this particular area between 1989 and 2010, with all the victims confirming exposure to marmots. This couple is said to have eaten the kidney, gall-bladder and liver of the marmot because they believed it to be a folk remedy.
The Mongolian government lifted the six-day quarantine on May 6, after no more cases of death were reported.
Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.