How the bubonic plague helped Russia fight coronavirus

How the bubonic plague helped Russia fight coronavirus
How the bubonic plague helped Russia fight coronavirus

The network of medical centers created in the Soviet Union in the 1920s to fight the plague has proved to be in demand today, providing expert support in quarantine and measures to combat the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic in the former republics of the USSR, the newspaper's Moscow correspondent writes.

Moscow - Several years ago, in a distant mountain meadow in Kyrgyzstan, a teenage boy killed and skinned a marmot. Five days later, his parents brought the boy with a severe fever to a village hospital, where he died of bubonic plague.

Like a ghost from the medieval past, the plague still appears from time to time in remote areas of the former Soviet Union, where it is carried by rodents.

As the principles of public hygiene improved, the plague gradually lost its status as a terrible threat. Today, plague, which is a bacterial infection, is successfully treated with antibiotics.

However, back in the 1920s, the plague was a deadly threat and a very annoying circumstance for the Soviet Union, whose authorities created a special state agency to track the plague and counter its spread.

The successors of that agency are still working throughout Russia and in several former Soviet republics, and since they already have ready-made plans for the introduction of quarantine and well-trained personnel, they have become the main link in the fight against the spread of coronavirus at the regional level.

It is too early to say whether the former Soviet anti-plague centers, as they were previously called, will be able to play any role in the fight against the spread of coronavirus infection, which has already infected more than 21 thousand Russians (170 have died).

At best, the inherited system from the Soviet Union has helped delay the spread of the coronavirus, and this is just one factor in assessing why the disease is spreading more slowly in Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics than in Western Europe and the United States. Luck, border closures, or government officials hiding the actual death toll may also explain these relatively low numbers.

Nevertheless, the number of cases is now growing rapidly, and these countries, apparently, are embarking on the same path that the whole world goes on - the path leading to overcrowded hospitals and morgues. However, employees of the anti-plague centers say their work has really helped.

“Of course she helped,” in the beginning, said Ravshan Maimulov, director of the regional anti-plague service in Kyrgyzstan, who examined a teenager who died of the plague in 2013. In March, Maimulov used the same quarantine plan he used after the death of a teenager to counter the spread of the coronavirus.

When the 15-year-old was taken to the village hospital, “his skin was still damp with sweat, and I felt swelling in his armpits and on his neck,” Maimulov said. But the teenager's condition was too serious to be saved, he died a few hours after being admitted to the hospital.

Maimulov, 57, studied at a Russian anti-plague institute called Microbe. He had all the authority to immediately put into effect the plan to introduce quarantine after the death of the teenager, despite the fact that at that time the diagnosis had not yet been finally confirmed.

Maimulov conveyed this news to the governor of the region in an encrypted message - they need to put into action a plan called "Formula 100" - so that this information does not leak to the masses ahead of time, and so that residents of the village of Ichke-Dzhergez do not have time to leave before they are forbidden do it.

“We needed to stop them from leaving,” he said. By the morning of the next day, there were already police checkpoints at the exits of the village, and leaving it was strictly prohibited.

On the recommendation of Maimulov, the Issyk-Kul Oblast authorities took the same approach in March when they introduced a self-isolation regime due to the spread of coronavirus infection. “We worked in accordance with the plan of action in case of a plague outbreak,” Maimulov said during a telephone interview. According to him, in this area, where half a million people live, only three cases of coronavirus infection have been officially confirmed. Five people have died from the coronavirus in Kyrgyzstan to date.

Today in Russia there are 13 anti-plague stations, from the Far East to the Caucasus Mountains, five anti-plague research institutes and many field posts. In March, authorities moved new laboratory equipment to a plague control center in Moscow to expand its coronavirus testing capabilities.

Experts at the Microbe Institute, which was originally created to fight only the bubonic plague, but later tackled other infectious diseases such as cholera, yellow fever, anthrax and tularemia, are trying to simulate the spread of coronavirus.

Since January, leaders of anti-plague institutions in the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union - a Moscow-led trade alliance that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia - has been holding videoconferencing meetings to discuss the coronavirus situation. According to Ukrainian officials, the anti-plague institute in Odessa is included in the list of those centers and agencies that are responsible for the fight against coronavirus in this country.

“Previously, Russia and other former Soviet republics were part of a single state, which means that they share a common health heritage,” said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. The legacy of focusing on fighting epidemics has helped, he said. Soviet health care achieved rather dubious results in treating individuals, but "it reacted to epidemics as tough as in the army," Trenin noted.

Other analysts specializing in Soviet health care say the Soviet legacy will not do much in the long run. During this time, the potential for fighting epidemics has decreased, and little has been done in terms of improving the quality of patient care, according to Evgeny Gontmakher, professor at the Higher School of Economics and a recognized expert in the field of Russian health care.

“Plague doctors were the elite a hundred years ago, but not now,” he said.

In Kyrgyzstan, Maimulov works in a wooden laboratory building, which until recently no one paid attention to. Before, Maimulov was engaged in planning measures to spray insecticides in rodent habitats in order to kill fleas and slow down the growth rate of the animal population.

The plague cannot be completely destroyed. “Rodents reproduce very quickly,” Maimulov said. "It is not advisable to kill them."

The family of a teenager who died from the plague grazed sheep in the mountains and set traps for marmots for their skins. The boy removed the skin from the killed groundhog with a sharp knife. Although the "black death" is usually spread through flea bites, in this case, a teenager contracted it simply by cutting his finger with a knife.

After his death, 32 villages were quarantined, and about 700 nurses went from house to house to find out if anyone else was sick. All marmot skins were collected and burned. The anti-plague team worked quickly: this time the teenager was the only victim.

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