The Manchurian plague

Before I go into the history of the The Manchurian plague, I would like to say something about Dr. Wu Lien-teh. Google is honoring him today with a Google Doodle, it is his 142 birthday today.

Dr. Wu Lien-teh. was a Malayan physician renowned for his work in public health and particularly, the Manchurian plague of 1910–11. Scientific personal protective equipment is generally believed to have begun with the cloth facemasks promoted by Wu Lien-teh during the Manchurian pneumonic plague outbreak, although many Western medics doubted the efficacy of facemasks in preventing the spread of disease.

Long before the coronavirus pandemic which broke out in the city of Wuhan .wreaked havoc on the planet, it was the Great Manchurian Plague that brought life to a standstill in China.

Like the Covid virus ,which currently is still causing problems globally, the virus which caused the Manchurian plague was also caused by an animal.

The deadly epidemic spread through China and threatened to become a pandemic. Its origins appeared to be related to the trade in wild animals, but at the time no one was sure. In the autumn of 1910, humans encountered the bacillus that causes plague, Yersinia pestis, when markets spurred exploitation of animals on another Asian borderland, a part of northeastern China on the border with Russia and Mongolia known as Manchuria. This region is home to a burrowing groundhog-like animal, the Tarbagan marmot. which became an attractive source for furs at the turn of the 19th century. The trapping and skinning of millions of marmots resulted in the transfer of Yersinia pestis directly into the lungs of humans and gave rise to the pneumonic plague.

Trying to find the source and the initial outbreak of the plague is hard, but it was first officially noted by Russian doctors in Manzhouli, an Inner Mongolian town on the Chinese-Russian border, which had developed around the China Eastern Railway . The symptoms were alarming — fever followed by haemoptysis (the coughing up of blood). In Manzhouli, the dead were left in the street and railway freight cars were turned into quarantine wards.

The epidemic hit international headlines when it reached the northeastern city of Harbin, which was then part of the area known as Manchuria , in today’s Heilongjiang province. The majority of the territory was Chinese-governed. While Japan controlled the port area around Dalian, Russia ran Manchuria’s railways.

In 1911, scientists working in Asia had only recently identified the microorganism that caused plague (Yersinia pestis, then known as Bacillus pestis), and many unanswered questions remained about the plague’s ecology, epidemiology, and infectivity, the same questions scientists today are asking about SARS-CoV-2.

Teams of researchers from different nations came to Manchuria to study these questions through work in laboratories, clinics, and the field, as well as through investigations into the plague.

Just as viruses spread fast along airline routes today, back then the railways facilitated the spread. Fear in Manzhouli meant many people followed the routes the marmot hides had taken along the CER to the Heilongjiang city of Qiqihar, and then on to Harbin.

At the time, Doctor Wu Lien-teh, was managing to contain the outbreak. Wu began post-mortem exams of victims and crucially established that the disease was pneumonic plague and not bubonic.

Legend has it that there was a French medical professor from Peiyang Medical College in Tianjin, Dr Girard Mesny, who believed Wu’s diagnosis was incorrect and wanted to replace him as the man leading the operation against the epidemic. Believing that it was a disease of the glands, he examined four patients without a facemask. He contracted the virus and died on January 11.

Wu knew he was working towards a looming deadline l. Chinese New Year was officially January 30 and He knew that limiting travel would be almost impossible during the annual migration home for so many Chinese people.
If the infection rate wasn’t brought down, then it risked becoming a nationwide epidemic.
The response was sometimes harsh ,any lodging house where an infection appeared was burnt to the ground. But overall Wu’s anti-plague measures worked. So-called “sanitary zones,” quarantines, lockdowns, isolation, travel restrictions and face masks were all implemented. Quarantine centres were established, mostly in converted rail freight cars. If the quarantined didn’t show symptoms within five-to-ten days they were released with a wire wristband fastened with a lead seal stating they were plague free. The measures appeared to have brought the infection rate in Harbin down by the end of January.
However, unfortunately Infections had spread along the rail line. By the start of January 1911, Shenyang had over 2,571 deaths. Eventually, quarantining and travel restrictions in Shenyang began to take effect and the infection rate fell. But the rail line extended onwards and several towns close to the major port city of Dalian reported cases.

In 1911, there was no WHO. The response to the epidemic, hence, was left to individual nations.

The shutdown of Dalian port stopped the spread out from Manchuria to major destinations in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia.

Wu’s draconian methods had also proved to be successful. The last case was recorded on March 1, 1911.

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sources

https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/full/10.2105/AJPH.2020.305960

https://www.wionews.com/world/of-the-great-manchurian-plague-of-1911-and-its-lessons-293564

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/18/china/great-manchurian-plague-china-hnk-intl/index.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchurian_plague

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