Reactivation of Ancient Plague Foci in Libya, 2009

Landscape around Oran, Algeria,  and Tobruk, Lybia in 2009 that produced plague cases. (Cabanel et al, 2013)
Landscape around Oran, Algeria (2003), and Tobruk, Lybia (2009) that produced plague cases. (Cabanel et al, 2013)

Plague has been called a re-emerging disease primarily because cases have begun to appear in areas where plague has been absent for decades. Two recent surprising outbreaks occurred in Algeria, where plague had been absent for over 50 years, and in Libya after a 25 year absence. A team led by the Institut Pasteur explored possible relationships between the recent Libyan outbreak and the Algerian outbreaks. All of the information in this post comes from their report to be published in the February issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases (citation and link below).

The outbreaks under consideration were just south of Oran, Algeria in 2003, at Lanhouat, Algeria in 2008 and near Tobruk near the Libyan-Egyptian border in 2009. Another possible outbreak of plague occurred at Tobruk during the Libyan revolution in 2011.  Political unrest prevented a complete disease investigation of the 2011 Libyan epidemic. Past Libyan plague outbreaks have occurred from 1913-1920, 1972, 1976, 1977, and 1984. The largest outbreak in 1917 is credited with 1,449 deaths.

The 2009 Libyan index cases consisted of three children from one nomad family; one child died after two days of intensive care and the other two eventually recovered. Only one child had a tender cervical node. The other two, including the child who died, had signs of a severe infection but no visible buboes. The father reported having axillary lymphadenitis and a couple of sudden deaths in the region in the previous two months. A week after admission Libyan authorities reported 13 possible cases to the World Health Organization and requested assistance. The WHO-Libyan team identified two more women with painful inguinal nodes and “infectious syndrome”, but also concluded the initial estimate overstated the number of cases. There are five confirmed cases. The cases were spread 30-60 km from the index family’s home in Eltarsha, 30 km south of Toburk. Regional response included antibiotic treatment of contact persons, and insect and rodent control measures. No further cases were reported.

Diagnosis was confirmed by standard bacteriological assays and molecular characterization. All five confirmed cases were positive with the F1 antigen dipstick.  Yersinia pestis cultures were isolated from three patients,  all phenotyped to the Medievalis biovar by metabolic assays. Molecular characterization confirmed that all are the same Medievalis strain. Hybridization analysis indicates that it is most closely related to, but distinct from, strains isolated from Iranian Kurdistan in 1947 – 1951.

Using the same methods, the 2003 Algerian isolates were phenotyped to the Orientalis biovar. Molecular characterization confirmed that they are all related but not identical Orientalis strains. Activation of multiple related strains from an ancient foci in the same year suggests an environmental trigger. Comparing the 2003 strains to those isolated in 1944 and 1945 illustrate the complexities of plague foci. The 1944 isolate is a Orientalis strain that belongs to the same cluster of strains as the 2003 isolates and other strains from Morocco and Senegal.  The 1945 strain matched a molecular characterization of  Orientalis isolates from Saigon, Vietnam and is believed to have been transmitted by military transports during World War II.  Cabanel et al conclude that the 2003 Algerian outbreaks were caused by local Yersinia pestis strains. It should be noted that the third pandemic from the turn of the 20th century was a Orientalis biovar (1.Ori1).

Cabanel et al. note this is the only instance they could find of a Medievalis strain in Africa. The spread of cases over a 30-60 km region and isolation of related but different strains support the reactivation of an ancient plague focus. Unfortunately they did not have access to isolates from previous 20th century Libyan outbreaks (if they exist) that could have provided more certainty.

Reactivation of plague foci around the Mediterranean has been associated with climate change. They note that an unusually humid winter and good crops in Libya in 2009 favored rodent and flea abundance. Long dormancies may be part of Yersinia pestis’ natural history particularly in resource limited environments. This possibility will be one of the topics of my next post.

Cabanel et al. note that camel meat and livers have been associated with human plague cases in Libya (1976), Saudi Arabia (1994), Jordan (1997), and Afghanistan (2007). Additional local evidence suggested that the highly susceptible camels contracted the plague from local foci in these instances. Although camels do not survive plague long enough to transmit it very far, camel caravan routes may still have played a role in transmission if only by the other organisms also along the camel caravan route. Camels would have provided an abundant host to amplify the organism along the route. Camel fleas could have been carried among the cargo not unlike rat fleas in ship cargoes. Camel caravans would provide an ancient route for a Medievalis strain to reach Libya from the central Asia.


Cabanel, N., Leclercq, A., Chenal-Francisque, V., Annajar, B., Rajerison, M., Bekkhoucha, S., Bertherat, E., & Carniel, E. (2013). Plague Outbreak in Libya, 2009, Unrelated to Plague in Algeria Emerging Infectious Diseases, 19 (2), 230-236 DOI: 10.3201/eid1902.121031

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One thought on “Reactivation of Ancient Plague Foci in Libya, 2009

  1. Besides the camel, it is also worth pointing out the rodent species involved in transmission through desert environments. The authors cite the work of Bitam et al. 2010, which had demonstrated that Shaw’s jird (Meriones shawii), which was found running around inside the tents of nomads, harbored Y. pestis. So, just further testimony to the extraordinary complexity of figuring out how Y. pestis moves to new regions or re-erupts in old ones. Great post!

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