Why two human plague cases and a squirrel were all people could talk about for 2 weeks in July
I’m a PhD student in the Zoology dept, studying the movement of fleas and rats that carry the plague in Madagascar, one of the worst affected countries in the world, reporting a few hundred human cases every year. When I mention I study plague, many people tell me they thought it was an eradicated disease, which isn’t that surprising in Britain. With human cases mainly occurring in Africa (particularly the DRC and Madagascar), Asia (Mongolia and northern China), pockets of South America (mainly Peru), and a smattering of well-studied cases in North America, northern Europe is relatively untouched by the “Black Death”. The news stories are out there, but even when they do pop up on major news outlets, they don’t gain much traction (i.e., they don’t get talked about much on Twitter). That is, until July 2020, when a startling number of apocalyptic bubonic plague-themed tweets swept across the Twittersphere.
Whenever news stories about plague cases crop up, someone (usually my Dad) will forward me the article with something like “saw this and thought of you” - objectively an odd thing unless you study disease ecology. Otherwise, Google will make me aware with its increasingly accurate news algorithm. They invariably contain an eye-catching title in the realm of “The plague still exists and it’s in America”, or “Why the bubonic cases in China aren’t something you need to worry about”, followed by a report of the case(s), finishing with something like ‘but no need to worry, plague is easily treated with antibiotics and you’re not going to catch it anyway’.
The fact that these cases are reported in British media at all is a bit odd; you wouldn’t expect to see a news story in Japan reporting that 2 Scottish people were being treated for Lyme disease, would you? But people see the words “bubonic plague” and know it might bring traffic. Strangely, I almost never see reports of plague in Madagascar or DRC, where plague occurs every year in relatively high numbers, it’s mostly isolated cases in northern China. Looking through tweets surrounding these reports, most are news outlets linking their own article, with a smattering of “I didn’t know the bubonic plague was still a thing” tweets from personal accounts. However, in summer 2020 two stories about bubonic plague popped up in every news outlet I could find and spread rapidly across Twitter: two human cases in a Mongolian village and one squirrel testing positive for plague in rural Colorado.
So, what was different about these two stories that caused widespread reporting and scores of tweets touting a “return of bubonic plague”? Nothing. Sporadic cases occur in Mongolia fairly often, and the Western United States experience up to 17 human cases of plague per year, transferred from wild animals like squirrels. Many articles framed the squirrel discovery as a ‘resurgence’ of plague in Colorado, reporting it as the “first cross-species transmission in [a few] years”. However, Colorado reports “cases in wild rodents most years” shared a Colorado state veterinarian as do a number of bordering states. Another surprise was that no reports (that I have managed to find) explained why the squirrel was tested at all. After a bit of digging I found the Colorado county’s page explaining that multiple dead squirrels had been found in one place, prompting testing. The positive test led to a local bulletin advising owners keep their pets indoors and that was the end of that.
The tone of a number of articles pointed to a more sinister “origin” of the plague squirrel, hinting that the Mongolian cases were somehow the cause of the US squirrel’s plight. Never mind that the squirrel was tested before the Mongolian cases were reported. The headlines of these ‘news’ reports clearly aimed to prey on pandemic-panic, with potentially racist undertones that are especially concerning.
Perhaps it was the combination of two stories about the same disease that prompted the Twitter and news storm, the geography of the cases, or maybe people are more hyper-aware of infectious diseases than they used to be and take more notice of the “Black death”. Whatever the reason, plague-orientated social media seems to have returned to normal. This last week a new case in a Chinese village has prompted another small-scale quarantine, causing yet another small round of sensationalised reports and a few tweets, but not on the same scale as July. With social media you never know what’s going to get picked up next.