On July 1, Mongolia’s National Centre for Zoonotic Disease (NCZD) reported two cases of the bubonic plague in the western part of Mongolia, in Khovd Province. Two brothers, aged 27 and 16, have caught the disease and are in critical condition as of July 4.
The first contacts with the two brothers are not showing any signs of the disease yet, but health care workers are being cautious; they will remain in quarantine for 14 days. The Khovd Province has been closed to travellers indefinitely as the last thing that Mongolia needs now is an outbreak of the plague.
This isn’t the first time Mongolia has had to deal with an outbreak of the bubonic plague, that left almost half of the European population dead when it first appeared in the Middle Ages. In fact, there is an outbreak almost every year.
Mongolia has always suffered from exposure to the plague which is believed to have originated in Asia and travelled along the Silk Road trading routes to Europe where it ravished the unprepared population, travelling in flea that rode on the rats that accompanied the merchants that travelled the lucrative trade route.
Today the plague lives on but has swapped its rates for local wild rodents, mainly marmots, which unfortunately Mongolians are fond of hunting.
It is illegal to hunt marmots in Mongolia, but highly regarded as a delicacy, many ignore the law. There is a belief amongst Mongolians that eating raw marmot liver is especially good for one’s health.
As a Mongolian, I have eaten marmot four times, but never raw liver. For me the taste and texture of the meat was chewy, but not tough, and somehow the meat has a property that brings out the flavour of any type of spice you add, and it can be quite addictive.
But it remains dangerous. Even as a child growing up in Mongolia I heard stories of hunters getting extremely sick and even dying from the disease the marmots carry.
Mongolians understand the risk of the disease, but they are less concerned for two reasons. First there is no extensive recorded history of Mongolians dying from the disease in the way that it ravaged Europe. Extended exposure to the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, that causes the disease has made the more resistant to the illness and more likely to recover if they catch it.
Secondly, in Mongolia the plague is known as the “Marmot Plague” and not the bubonic plague. I personally didn’t know that Marmot plague was the bubonic plague till my 20’s and I suspect many Mongolians don't know the two are actually the same sickness.
In the time of the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic sensitivities to infections have been heightened and the whole country is already on lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. So far 225 cases of coronavirus infections have been confirmed, but Mongolia is one of the few countries in the world where there has not been a single death. The virus is thought to have arrived in the country with a French tourist, who arrived in March.
With a long border shared with China, the Mongolian government was very aware of the spreading pandemic early on and acted quickly to prevent the spread of the virus through its own small population. Most significantly the borders have been closed just ahead of the annual Naadam festival of the “Three Manly Games” (horse racing, wrestling and archery), which is the major tourist attraction of the country. While Naadam has not been cancelled the authorities have imposed some restrictions like closing all the food stands at the national stadium where the wrestling takes place. The government says it will keep the borders closed until a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed.
There is a good chance of stamping out coronavirus in Mongolia, but the bubonic plague is a lot harder to eradicated. According to NCZD, 17 out of 21 provinces in Mongolia are natural homes for the disease. But despite the prevalence of the bacteria only one or two cases appear each year, with very few casualties.
Last year, Mongolia’s Marmot plague caught international attention as some publications falsely reported that two Russian tourists in Mongolia had died from the virus. In reality no foreigners contracted the bubonic plague, but the Russians were quarantined for two weeks, as they were in the region where two local couples had died from the disease, earlier that year.