(FILES) In this file photo people wait in line to undergo COVID-19 coronavirus swab tests at a testing station in Beijing on June 30, 2020. (AFP / Greg Baker)

Misleading claim spreads online about detection of bubonic plague in China

Copyright AFP 2017-2020. All rights reserved.

Multiple Facebook and Twitter posts shared thousands of times claim the World Health Organization (WHO) has said a case of bubonic plague detected in China in early July 2020 is likely to trigger a "severe epidemic". The posts include an additional claim that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said bubonic plague can be spread through cough droplets. The claims are misleading; the WHO has said the bubonic plague case is not high-risk and is “being well managed”; the CDC states bubonic plague is usually caused by flea bites.

The claim was published on Facebook here on July 7, 2020. It has been shared more than 1,700 times.

A screenshot of the misleading post taken on July 8, 2020

The post's caption claims to contain accurate information from the WHO and the CDC about bubonic plague.

The photo included in the post shows a wax sculpture that depicts a bubonic plague patient.

The misleading claim circulated online just days after a bubonic plague case was reported in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region in northern China, on July 5, 2020, according to this AFP report.

A similar claim has also been shared hundreds of times here, here and here on Facebook, and here on Twitter.  

The claim is misleading.

'Severe epidemic' claim

The post states in part: "BREAKING: Bubonic plague is back? / A highly contagious and fatal disease confirmed in China and can trigger severe epidemic according to WHO... Modern antibiotics can present complications and death if administered quickly enough."

The claim is misleading; the WHO has in fact said the reported bubonic plague case is “being well managed”.

The bubonic plague is the “most common form of plague and is caused by the bite of an infected flea” according to the WHO

WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris was quoted in this July 7 AFP report as saying: “We are looking at the case numbers in China. It's being well managed. At the moment, we are not considering it high-risk but we're watching it, monitoring it carefully.”

This WHO information sheet states: “Although plague has been responsible for widespread pandemics throughout history, including the so-called Black Death that caused over 50 million deaths in Europe during the fourteenth century, today it can be easily treated with antibiotics and the use of standard preventative measures.”

'Cough transmission' claim

Another part of the claim states: “Bubonic plague is airborne and can be spread when an infected person coughs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.” 

This is also misleading.

According to the CDC, “Bubonic plague... usually results from the bite of an infected flea.”

Pneumonic plague, another form of the disease that may develop from untreated bubonic plague, “is the only form of plague that can be spread from person to person (by infectious droplets),” the CDC said.

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