Bubonic Plague

Although devastating epidemics of bubonic plague were recorded in China since 1331, the surviving Korean literature does not seem to reflect similar episodes. The bubonic plague outbreaks that occurred in Asia from the 1890s to the 1920s were, of course, watched with great interest by bacteriologists and public health workers. Of special concern to Korea was the epidemic that occurred in northwestern Manchuria and spread along the newly constructed railroad lines to various cities of northern China, killing 600,000 people in 1911-12. As the 1911 epidemic spread through China, Korea organized preventive teams of personnel and established a quarantine line along the northern frontier. Later plague epidemics in Manchuria, Mongolia, and northern China also failed to reach Korea.

Human plague was reported in Korea in 1919, but there were no official reports of the disease between that year and 1944. Nevertheless, sporadic cases may have occurred and some cases may have been imported during World War II. In 1939, Hall was summoned to the military hospital wing of the Haiju Government Hospital for a consultation about a mysterious condition spreading among wounded soldiers returning from Manchuria. It was apparently a type of lung disease that had also attacked medical attendants. The Japanese physician in charge had ruled out bubonic plague because the sick had no swelling or tenderness of the lymphatic glands in the groin or axilla; however, a sudden severe headache was followed by nausea and vomiting. Other symptoms were high fever; extreme prostration; rapidly labored breathing; cough; and expectoration of a watery, frothy sputum: The afflicted died within hours, almost black with cyanosis. Hall suspected plague and found Pasteurella pestis in sputum from the sick. Sworn to secrecy by the Medical Officer, Hall suggested increased precautions to protect the staff and an all-out war on rats. Yet, no new cases appeared among hospital patients or staff, and the Chief Medical Officer decided that it was not necessary to alarm the public by instituting rodent control measures (Hall 1978).

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