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A Deadly Plague in Madagascar is Spreading After Relatives Dig-up Their Dead

Relatives dancing with the dead bodies of their loved ones as part of an ancient ritual is fueling the spread of plague in Madagascar, officials claim.

Madagascans have been urged to stop the Famadihana tradition, a practice that involves digging up dead relatives, wrapping them in fresh cloth and dancing with them before putting them back underground.

Experts fear the ancient ritual has accelerated the spread of plague, which has now infected more than 1,300 people. It has prompted warnings in nine nearby countries – South Africa, Seychelles, La Reunion, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Comoros and Mauritius.

At least 93 deaths have been recorded, but UN estimates the toll may already be as high as 124. It is caused by the same bacteria that wiped out at least 50 million people in Europe in the 1300s.

Officials are growing concerned as around two thirds of the cases are suspected to be pneumonic plague – described as the ‘deadliest and most rapid form of plague’. It is spread through coughing, sneezing or spitting and can kill within 24 hours.

Willy Randriamarotia, the Madagascan health ministry’s chief of staff, said: ‘If a person dies of pneumonic plague and is then interred in a tomb that is subsequently opened for a Famadihana, the bacteria can still be transmitted and contaminate whoever handles the body.’

It has been reported as many as 50 aid workers are believed to have been among the people infected, with two cities among those hit, including the capital Antananarivo. Experts warn the disease will spread rapidly in heavily populated areas.

Madagascar sees regular outbreaks of plague, which tend to start in September, with around 600 cases being reported each year on the island. This year’s outbreak has struck early, which means it has more time to pick up speed.

Madagascans have been told to stop the traditional practice of Famadihana.

It is feared the ceremony has helped spread an outbreak of pneumonic plague that has left more than 120 dead on the African island.

Travellers have been warned about the spread of the killer plague, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade urging Australians to speak to their doctor before travelling to Madagascar. It also warns the plague outbreak is restricting people from accessing the Seychelles from Madagascar.

But the ancient practice of Famadihana, which has been translated to the “turning of the bones”, is creating fresh concerns in Madagascar.

The country’s health chief Willy Randriamarotia said: “If a person dies of pneumonic plague and is then interred in a tomb that is subsequently opened for a Famadihana, the bacteria can still be transmitted and contaminate whoever handles the body.”

The tradition has been banned since the plague outbreak began, but it is feared ceremonies have taken place regardless.

Some locals are openly dismissing the advice.

“I have participated in as least 15 Famadihana ceremonies and I’ve never caught the plague,” one person said.

The latest warning came as British aid workers said the epidemic would get worse before it got better.

“The epidemic is ahead of us, we have not yet reached the peak,” Olivier Le Guillou of Action Against Hunger said.

As many as 50 aid workers are believed to have been among the 1200 people infected with the more dangerous airborne pneumonic strain of the disease.

Warnings have been issued for nine countries surrounding Madagascar amid fears the disease could spread via sea trade and flight routes.

Those countries are Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros.

The medieval disease notoriously wiped out one third of Europe’s population in the 13th and 14th centuries in one of the most devastating pandemics in human history known as the Black Death.

Dr Ashok Chopra, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Texas, told The Sun Online the crisis in Madagascar had yet to peak.

He warned it was possible for the deadly plague to move further into the region given the regular flights going in and out of the country.

“If they are travelling shorter distances and they’re still in the incubation period, and they have the pneumonic (form) then they could spread it to other places,” Dr Chopra said.

“We don’t want to have a situation where the disease spreads so fast it sort of gets out of control.”

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