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The World in Medicine
June 2, 2004

Portents of Plague

JAMA. 2004;291(21):2534. doi:10.1001/jama.291.21.2534-b

In Kazakhstan and elsewhere in central Asia, the plague bacterium (Yersinia pestis) circulates in wild burrowing rodents and is transmitted to humans via fleas . Now, an international team of researchers has found that outbreaks of plague in Kazakhstan can be predicted based on the fluctuations of populations of wild gerbil colonies (Science. 2004;304:736-738).

The researchers analyzed field data collected between 1955 and 1996 by Soviet scientists who monitored populations of the great gerbil (Rhombomys opimus), the main reservoir host in that region. They discovered that plague emerges in the gerbil colonies about 2 years after a peak in the population density of the animals, which live in stable burrow systems.

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