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The Plague is Back in a Big Way

Madagascar’s bubonic outbreak is scary, but this time we’re (mostly) ready for it.

Illustration by Addison Eaton

Around the time you were sitting down to a gluttonous Thanksgiving dinner with your family, health professionals in Madagascar were dealing with an unprecedented outbreak of plague. Also known as bubonic plague, this is the same disease that ravaged the world for a millennium—“the black death” wiped out about a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century. Since the outbreak began with the death of patient zero on August 31 in the rural western village of Soamahatamana, the disease has infected at least 138 and killed 47. Many worry there are signs that it could begin spreading rapidly. But neither Madagascar, nor the world at large is freaking out because after years of experience with this illness, we are confident that we know how to handle it. In an age of apocalyptic terror about Ebola, that sort of faith in our ability to handle one of our primeval fears is heartening and instructive.

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