Geneva - Health chiefs are scrambling to contain a Black Death outbreak after plague warnings were issued for nine countries across south-east Africa. Experts warn the deadly disease is caused by the same bacteria that wiped out 25 million people in Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries. The latest outbreak is believed to have started on the island of Madagascar off the East African coast where at least 124 people have died and 1,300 more have been infected. The World Health Organisation said plague - a terrifying bacterial infection transmitted by fleas - is nothing new in Madagascar, where about 600 cases are reported annually. But concerned officials claim there is “something different” about this outbreak and “health officials couldn’t explain it”. Dr Arthur Rakotonjanabelo said: “Plague is a disease of poverty, because it thrives in places with poor sanitary conditions and health services.” But he said the disease has now spread to parts of Madagascar which had not seen the plague since at least 1950. Scientists are now working round the clock to predict the next outbreak and prevent it becoming a global epidemic and putting millions of life at risk. Doctors on the Global Virome Project are trying to find all viruses in birds and mammals that could spill over to humans in the next decade. And the US Agency for International Development has spent the past eight years cataloguing threats, identifying 1,000 new viruses.
But Australian researchers have warned it is impossible to predict a global outbreak because there are too many variables.
Jemma Geoghegan from Macquarie University and Edward Holmes from the University of Sydney said efforts will fail because the enormous number of unknown viruses could evolve and appear in humans at any time. Dr Geoghegan said: “The Global Virome Project will be great for understanding more about viruses and their evolution, but I don’t see how it’ll help us work out what’s going to infect us. “We’re only just coming to terms with the vastness of the virosphere. “Once a virus achieves human-to-human transmission, it’s really just a matter of luck as to how severe and contagious it is, and whether or not it can be treated quickly. “Both humans and diseases are constantly changing, so it’s a bit like trying to hit a moving target from a moving car. “We’re trying to predict really, really rare events from not much information, which I think is going to fail.”
She pointed out that scientists discovered the Zika virus in Uganda in 1947 yet there was an outbreak on the other side of the world, in Brazil, two years ago. The disease is spread by mosquitoes and can cause severe birth defects in babies if the mother is bitten while pregnant.(FA)