BEIJING — Residents of a remote farming town in western China say people have been seeking to flee in defiance of a lockdown by authorities to prevent the spread of highly infectious pneumonic plague which has claimed three lives in the area.
Police have set up checkpoints around Ziketan in Qinghai province, a town of 10,000 people, which has been put under quarantine after at least a dozen people caught the lung infection that can kill within 24 hours if untreated.
Some people tried to leave the quarantined area Monday evening, mostly by foot, after the third death was reported, two residents reached by The Associated Press said.
"A lot of people ran off last night when they heard that another person died of this plague. They are mostly from other provinces," a local food seller, surnamed Han, said Tuesday. "They headed back home with food, water and their donkeys."
A Tibetan woman named Xiumaocuo, a migrant construction worker from another village in Qinghai, said there were very few people on the streets.
"I've heard the migrant workers who build projects went home last night," she said by telephone. "My boss told me that more than 50 of the 100 construction workers on our project left homes already."
It was unclear if the people who headed out of the town made it past the police checkpoints, which residents say have been set up in 17-mile (28-kilometer) radius around Ziketan, which lies more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) west of Beijing.
Officials at the local and provincial level were unavailable to comment.
Chinese authorities have been in contact with the World Health Organization about their steps to contain the outbreak of plague, a disease that circulates mainly among small animals like rats and mice but can also infect humans.
Pneumonic plague is the least common and most deadly form of the disease. It can be directly spread between humans since the bacteria is airborne and can easily be inhaled by those in close contact with infected patients. But if treated early with antibiotics, it is curable.
The outbreak in Ziketan was first detected Thursday, although it isn't clear when the first victim died.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the latest victim was a 64-year-old man named Danzhi – a neighbor of the first two fatalities, described in reports as a 32-year-old herdsman and a 37-year-old man.
The herdsman fell sick after burying his dog, which had died suddenly, according to a report by the official China National Radio, citing a hospital official.
His relatives were among a further nine people who are infected and in a hospital, according to the local health bureau. One is in extremely serious condition and one other has developed symptoms of coughing and chest pain, but the rest are in stable condition, Xinhua and the health department said.
Worldwide, thousands of plague cases are reported each year, mostly in Africa. Between 1998 and 2008, nearly 24,000 cases were reported, including about 2,000 deaths, in Africa, Asia, the Americas and eastern Europe.
China has had cases before. WHO said in a 2006 report that most cases in China's northwest occur when hunters are contaminated while skinning infected animals.