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Famadihana and the Black Plague in Madagascar

Although it may not be news to anyone anymore, Madagascar is still battling the worst outbreak of Bubonic plague in the last 50 years. 

And yes, it is that Bubonic plague. The one that killed over 50 million people across Europe in the 14th century, not accounting for the unknown destruction it caused in Asia, when it was known as the Black Death.

Interestingly enough, Madagascar is used to seeing hundreds of cases of (mostly) bubonic plague in its’ rural areas, every year. The difference is that, this year it has developed into the deadlier pneumonic version and spread to much more populated areas, including the capital. While the trend in the past two years indicated an overall lower number of deaths, there has been an alarmingly higher rate of contracting the pneumonic form of the disease.

The difference between the Bubonic Plague and Pneumonic Plague:

  • Bubonic plague is spread to humans by the bites of infected fleas that live on small mammals such as rats.
  • Without treatment, the Bubonic plague it kills up to two-thirds of those infected.
  • About one in 10 (untreated) cases will develop into pneumonic plague, which is almost always fatal if not treated quickly.
  • Unlike bubonic plague, the pneumonic plague spreads much more easily through droplets in the air. (So if a sick person coughs very close to you, you could pick it up) 

Though this is considered a medieval disease, the Bubonic plague strikes hundreds of people every year, with its highest concentrations in Africa. Madagascar is by far the country worst effected by this, so much so, that every single year they have what is dubbed “Plague Season”. Since 2010 it has been the site of over half (and one year, 90 percent) of worldwide incidents of this plague. In order to prevent the spread of the disease, it is common practice for the corpses of plague victims to be buried immediately. This means that they are usually interred near a city hospital, instead of a family crypt. Unfortunately, tradition may be a deterrent for some seeking treatment in a hospital. 

In Madagascar, if you have a question about family matters, or want blessings for fertility, you seek out your ancestors’ help. And sometimes, that means digging up their bodies. During the traditional ceremony, known as Famadihana, or “the turning of the bones” hundreds of people from the community gather at the family crypt usually every 5 to 7 years. In these ceremonies, the Malagasy open the tombs and remove the bodies, to be rewrapped in silk. The bodies are lifted over the heads of observing revelers and merrymakers.  The descendants use this time to ask for guidance from the ancestors and then the bodies are returned to their crypts.

But some families of plague victims will go so far as to stealthily unearth their loved ones to bring them back to their own villages for burial. There is even a chance that families may anticipate, based on what they may perceive as severity of disease, and the possibility of not being able to bury their family members properly and decide to not bring their relatives to the hospital at all. One such tactic that has been implemented is burying the corpses with concrete tombs to try to discourage the unearthings.

You can view the report from the World Health Organization here: 



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