Plague in Surat: 20 Years Later

I can’t let 2014 pass in a few weeks without mentioning that this fall was the twentieth anniversary of the plague outbreak in Surat, India — a major turning point in modern plague history and in the development of the (re)emerging infectious disease paradigm.

In the final accounting, 53 people died of plague, mostly pneumonic, but there are over 5000 cases classified as suspected and at least half a million people fled across India. Compared to other pneumonic plague outbreaks in Africa within the last twenty years, the number of deaths was small and the mortality rate tiny (1% of suspected cases). The government response was not only woefully inadequate but also exacerbated the damage within India and scared the rest of the world.

The lessons learned from Surat are really what is important.

  • The need for a national database to keep track of seemingly isolated cases and the need for surveillance of rodents, even when there haven’t been any human cases in many years. Better surveillance established since 1994 has identified several more plague outbreaks in India and enough evidence of enduring plague foci in the country.
  • The need for transparency, willingness to accept foreign help and the futility of trying to hide the epidemic from the press.
  • The costs of unsupported allegations of biological warfare or terrorism are too high to make unless there is certainty. It ultimately does not deflect responsibility away from the government for the response. The political costs for governments who make official erroneous allegations are greater than accepting responsibility for the outbreak.

In this month’s issue of the Indian Journal of Microbiology, the full genomic sequence of Yersinia pestis collected at Surat in 1994 and at a 2002 outbreak in India was released. Four samples were sequenced and they are all four different strains. Unfortunately, they did not do a phylogenetic analysis to indicate where they fit on the Y. pestis tree.

Twenty years ago it was the double hit of plague in Surat in 1994 and the discovery of antibiotic resistant plague in Madagascar in 1995 that raised concern about re-emerging infection diseases. Antibiotic resistant strains of Yersinia pestis have continued to appear in Madagascar and now insecticide resistant fleas are a problem as well. While public health processes and surveillance are better than in 1994, there has been no improvement plague incidence or concerning resistant strains.

Ebola is currently extracting the toll that was feared of plague in Surat two decades ago. If Surat was the warning that acute pandemics are still possible, Ebola is showing how far we still have to go 20 years later. Both plague in Surat and Ebola in 2014 are also reminding us that knowing what to do to stop an epidemic is not enough, execution is everything.

Further reading on Surat:

Barrett, Ron. (2008) “The 1994 Plague in Western India: Human Ecology and the Risks of Misattribution” p. 49-71 in Terrorism, War, or Disease? Unraveling the Use of Biological Weapons. Edited by A.L. Clunan, P.B. Lavoy, and S. B. Martin. Stanford Security Studies. Stanford University Press. This is the best analysis of the Surat outbreak that I have found.

Ziegler, Michelle (2014) The Black Death and the Future of the Plague. The Medieval Globe, 1: 183-199 for an overview of plague since 1994.

Mahale, K. N., Paranjape, P. S., Marathe, N. P., Dhotre, D. P., Chowdhury, S., Shetty, S. A., et al. (2014). Draft Genome Sequences of Yersinia pestis Strains from the 1994 Plague Epidemic of Surat and 2002 Shimla Outbreak in India. Indian Journal of Microbiology, 54(4), 480–482. doi:10.1007/s12088-014-0475-7

For more on antibiotic resistant plague, see this past post and on the most recent reported pneumonic plague outbreak in Madagascar.