VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Pneumonic plague, not bubonic, can spread via droplets

A Bohol-based Facebook (FB) page made an inaccurate claim about the bubonic plague, saying it is “airborne” and “can be spread when an infected person coughs.” It attributed its information to the United States (U.S.) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This is misleading. The bubonic plague can only be transmitted via droplets if it has advanced into pneumonic plague, where the infection has advanced into a person’s lungs.

Unless it has reached a person’s lungs, the bubonic plague does not spread from person to person, the U.S. CDC said. The World Health Organization (WHO) said the same in a fact sheet.

It is mainly passed on through the bite of an infected flea or handling fluids or tissue from an infected animal, said the American health authority.

Published on July 7 by FB page BOHOL FLASH Report, the misleading post led off with news of a bubonic plague case confirmed this month in Inner Mongolia before sharing its misleading warning.

Bubonic plague is only one of several forms of the plague, which caused one of the deadliest pandemics in history. All forms are caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and may occur separately or in combination.

Bubonic plague is characterized by painful, swollen lymph nodes called buboes. It is curable with rapid diagnosis and antibiotics.

Septicemic plague occurs when infection spreads to the bloodstream, and can cause skin and tissues to turn black and die. Both the U.S. CDC and WHO said this form may be transmitted the same way bubonic plague is transmitted.

Pneumonic plague is the “most virulent and least common form of the plague” said the WHO. It is the only form that may be transmitted person to person, and may develop from untreated bubonic or septicemic plague where the bacteria has spread to the lungs, or via the inhalation of droplets from a person who has this form of the plague.

BOHOL FLASH Report’s misleading post, which has been shared over 134,000 times, was accompanied by a photo of a 2007 wax sculpture of a plague victim done by British modeller and sculptor Eleanor Crook. It surfaced two days after Bayannur city in Inner Mongolia issued an alert level for plague prevention, following the announcement of authorities that a herdsman contracted bubonic plague on July 5.

The post could have potentially reached 7.7 million people, and its top traffic generators are FB page Pure Force- Media and public FB groups I Love Antipolo ( Ikaw, Ako,Tayo...Proud to be Antipoleño ) and I AM FROM STA CRUZ LAGUNA.

FB page BOHOL FLASH Report, which describes itself as a forum for “information, education, and discussion of issues and concerns,” was created Oct. 10, 2015.

(Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct the information that the July 2020 bubonic plague case was found in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China, and not Mongolia. We apologize for the mistake.)

(Editor's Note: VERA Files has partnered with Facebook to fight the spread of disinformation. Find out more about this partnership and our methodology.)

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