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Xi’an Residents Fear Plague Outbreak as Locals Suffer Hemorrhagic Fever

Lucy Crawford
Born and raised in China, Lucy Crawford has been living in Canada for over 20 years. She has great sympathy for Chinese and human suffering in general. With a Master's degree in Education and having worked on various professions, she now translates and writes about stories in ancient and modern China. She lives in Calgary with her husband and four children.
Published: December 20, 2021
A recent outbreak of "hemorrhagic fever" in China. Rodents are thought to be the main source of infection. (Image source: video screenshot)

China is facing an unsettling year-end. A recent outbreak of hemorrhagic fever has emerged in the northwestern province of Shaanxi while COVID-19 cases continue to spread across the country. Several hemorrhagic fever cases and deaths have been reported in Xi’an, the seat of Shaanxi Province. Despite censorship of the news, locals suspect that the disease is directly related to a rampant rodent infestation, and many fear a possible recurrence of the plague.

The state-run Xi’an News reported that hospitals in the city have reported numerous cases of hemorrhagic fever since the beginning of winter this year. While medical experts point out that hemorrhagic fever is a common infectious disease in China’s north — which typically starts to peak in October every year — netizens have expressed concern that the outbreak could actually involve plague, a disease that has killed tens of millions throughout teh centuries, and which in 2019 claimed several lives in China’s Inner Mongolia region.

Hemorrhagic fever is mainly transmitted by rodents, the striped field mouse (Apodemus agrarius), and the Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus). Those who are bitten or come into contact with the blood or excrement of rodents carrying the virus may be infected, and serious cases may lead to death.

Because the early symptoms of hemorrhagic fever are similar to those of the common flu, many patients may mistake it for a common cold. Therefore, experts at the Xi’an Disease Control Center warned that hemorrhagic fever is a fast-onset, fast-moving disease that can be fatal, and urged people with fever and other symptoms to seek medical attention.

Although officials specifically warned people about hemorrhagic fever, they didn’t reveal any details of patients.

News about hemorrhagic fever broke out, one after another, in many social media groups on WeChat and QQ in China.

“Be on the lookout. An outbreak of hemorrhagic fever has been circulating online in Xi’an, with videos showing [doors in] a neighborhood being welded shut. Deaths are said to have occurred,” the tweet says. 

According to an online chat, a local health care worker revealed that his hospital’s infectious disease unit is full of patients and that all hospitals designated for hemorrhagic fever in Xi’an are at capacity, and some have even been forced to close.

Unofficial sources also reported that the outbreak was particularly serious in the Chang’an District, where multiple people have died and some schools have been forced to suspend classes because of infections among students.

“My personal guess is that hemorrhagic fever can’t be so transmissible. I’m afraid a new variant of Wuhan virus has emerged, and after getting infected, the illness resembles hemorrhagic fever,” the tweet reads.

As of 2:00 a.m. on Dec. 20, the topic of “multiple cases of hemorrhagic fever in Xi’an” on Weibo has attracted 280 million people and 4,483 discussions.

Officials have repeatedly emphasized that hemorrhagic fever and plague aren’t closely related. 

However, in 2019, there was a severe outbreak of plague in Beijing, causing an enactment of a travel restriction policy to prevent people from the infected areas from entering Beijing. 

It’s worth mentioning that the situation was severe at the time, but it was never widely reported on. According to people who said they were staff of the Xuanwu Hospital in China, “ordinary [poor and powerless] plague patients were sent to the hospital by the Communist Party only for isolation without any recovery treatment, and the dead were shipped away for direct incineration.” This method is similar to the treatment of SARS in 2002. “The government only did strict quarantine and didn’t do any treatment. The people had no choice but to comply.”

“In Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, the outbreak was controlled on a large scale, with many areas closed and people lining up in the middle of the night for nucleic acid tests. Meanwhile. Suspected hemorrhagic fever outbreak in Chang’an County, Xi’an, Shaanxi,” the tweet reads.

There is no way to know how bad the hemorrhagic fever situation in Xi’an is, but the local COVID-19 outbreak and associated lockdowns remain aggressive, taking a toll on health and life in the ancient city. 

On Dec 18, Shaanxi officials said at a press conference that there were 10 new confirmed local cases and three asymptomatic cases in Xi’an. The province has reported 27 cases of the local infection since Dec. 9, and the exact course of transmission is unclear. Under China’s zero-COVID policy, the entire population is being tested for the virus.