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Chinese health officials have sealed off a town in a sparsely populated area of north-central China to halt the spread of an aggressively deadly strain of plague.

As of Sunday, two men have died from the outbreak, and another 10 - most of them relatives of the first dead man - are under quarantine.

The disease is pneumonic plague, which the World Health Organization refers to as "the most virulent and least common form of plague." Pneumonic plague is a variant of the bubonic plaque - the Black Death - that killed an estimated 75 to 100 million people worldwide in the mid-1300s.

Bubonic plague is spread by flea bites, but pneumonic plague needs no third-party vector. It is spread simply by inhaling the Yersinia pestis bacteria after it has been made airborne by an infected person's cough.

Untreated, pneumonic plague can kill in a day, with a mortality rate that "approaches 100 per cent," according to an article published by two American clinicians. Early and aggressive treatment with antibiotics can, however, reduce that death rate significantly.

None of the 10 under strict quarantine have shown signs of the disease, according to China's official Xinhua News Agency, which reported the first death on Saturday. They are, however, being kept under watch due to their association with the dead.

The two deaths from the current outbreak have occurred in the town of Ziketan in Qinghai province. Ziketan is huge: 3,000 square kilometers, according to Xinhua - over 1,150 square miles. Ziketan is in the Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and it has a population that's over 60 per cent ethnic Tibetan and just under 30 per cent Han Chinese.

Xinhua reported that a press release from Health Bureau of Qinghai Province claimed that they had sent a "team of experts to the area [that] had the plague under control" and that "the area has sufficient supplies and the quarantine has not disrupted the basic needs of the locals."

The Associated Press spoke by phone with a food seller in Ziketan who said, "People are so scared. There are few people on the streets. There are police guarding the quarantine center at the township hospital but not on the streets."

The man, named Han, said that authorities had instructed people to disinfect their homes and shops and wear masks if they needed to go out.

Han also said that some 80 per cent of shops in the town had been closed - and that the "prices of disinfectants and some vegetables have tripled." ®

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