Mongolia remains on high alert after two Russian tourists died in the west of the country from bubonic plague. As a precaution, all flights in and out of Russia were grounded and a Hunnu Air domestic flight was quarantined at Ulaanbaatar airport.
The aircraft belonging to Mongolia’s Hunnu Air was halted on the tarmac after it landed at the country’s main airport on the 3rd May. Emergency service personnel in hazmat suits then boarded the flight and quarantined passengers and crew.
The ATR 72-500 had flown from a Siberian airport close to where it is thought the couple lived.
11 passengers on board were admitted to hospital. Others stayed at the airport and were kept under observation. Among those who received prophylactic medical treatment were seven foreign tourists from Kazakhstan, South Korea, Sweden and Switzerland.
Another 160 people who came into direct or indirect contact with the victims were placed ‘under supervision’, according to Russian newspaper The Siberian Times.
Hunnu Air grounded all flights to the region but it has since resumed flights on some domestic routes.
The 38-year-old man and his 37-year-old pregnant wife died of the highly infectious disease on April 27th and May 1st respectively, reportedly after eating contaminated meat. Mongolian authorities confirmed the pair died in the country’s Bayan-Ölgii Aimag province, which shares its border with Russia.
According to reports the couple had eaten the meat of a marmot. The meat was contaminated with the deadly yersinia pestis bacteria.
‘Preliminary test results show that bubonic plague likely caused the deaths of the two people,’ The Siberian Times reported.
Quarantine causes disruption
The deaths forced Mongolian authorities to temporarily close its border with Russia. Their quarantine of the plane at Ulaanbaatar was just one of a series of measures to prevent any further contamination.
The measures put in place amid the plague scare proved disruptive. Thousands of Russian tourists found themselves stranded in Mongolia. According to the BBC, nine tourists turned to the Russian consulate in Ulaanbaatar for help.
It was predicted that the closure of the frontier would last for several weeks, but by Monday 6th, the border was reopened. Tourists were then able to make their way home.
Altogether, the shutdown lasted six days.
What is the bubonic plague?
If left untreated, the bubonic plague can kill an adult human in less than a day.
The virulent disease destroys the lymphatic system rendering the body’s own defences useless. Symptoms appear a few days after infection.
Despite Mongolia’s wildlife being infected with the plague, instances of human plague are rare. Since 1997 there has only been one reported case. On that occasion the victim was treated quickly and survived.
In comparison there were 341 cases of bubonic plague in Madagascar in the same year, according to the World Health Organisation
Some wild animals in the United States are known to carry bubonic plague. 12 people have died from the disease in the last 20 years. In 2015, parts of the Yosemite National Park were closed due to a plague scare.
The Great Plague of 1665 killed 200,000 Londoners; a quarter of the city’s population.
A plague outbreak in the Far East in the 1800s killed 12 million people.
Hunnu Air is the newest of three domestic airlines serving the nation of Mongolia. It began operations in 2011. The carrier previously called itself Mongolian Airlines Group but changed its name in 2013. This was to avoid confusion with the country’s oldest carrier MIAT Mongolian Airlines, which has been flying since 1956.
Hunnu operates out of its base at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar. It retired its three Fokker 50s in January 2019. It now owns two ATR 72-500s and is awaiting the delivery of four Embraer 190s.