On July 6, a Mongolian teen from the western province of Govi-Altai died from suspected bubonic plague after consuming marmot meat, according to local health officials.

Tarbagan marmot is used to make a Mongolian dish called boodog. For centuries, Mongolian’s have cooked marmot meat by inserting preheated stones into the abdominal cavity of a marmot. The skin is then tied up to make a bag within which the meat cooks. However, this cooking method often prevents the meat from being thoroughly cooked or reaching high enough temperatures to kill harmful pathogens. 

Click to enlarge.

According to the Center for Disease Control, humans can become infected with plague when handling tissue or body fluids of a plague-infected animal. For example, a hunter skinning a rabbit or otherinfected animal without using proper precautions could become infected with plague bacteria. In Mongolia, there have been public health campaigns that have warned people to avoid eating or coming into contact with marmots.

The death of the boy comes after Mongolian authorities recorded two cases of plague in the neighboring province of Khovd aimak. There has been a strict quarantine placed on the both provinces, and entry and exit of vehicles have been suspended.

In April 2019, a couple died of bubonic plague in another western Mongolian province, Bayan-Ulgii, after eating raw marmot meat. According to the World Health Organization, between 1,000 and 2,000 cases are reported each year, though the true number is likely much higher.

This latest death has prompted Russian health officials to warn residents in Western Siberia not to hunt and eat marmots after both neighboring Mongolia and Inner Mongolia have reported cases of bubonic plague.

Plague is a disease that affects humans and other mammals. It is caused by the bacterium, Yersinia pestis. Humans usually get plague after being bitten by a rodent flea that is carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an animal infected with plague. Plague is infamous for killing millions of people in Europe during the Middle Ages. 

Today, modern antibiotics are effective in treating plague, but without prompt treatment, the disease can cause serious illness or death. Presently, human plague infections continue to occur in rural areas in the western United States, but significantly more cases occur in parts of Africa and Asia.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety Website, click here)