Courtesy Wikimedia Creative CommonsHalloween is coming up soon and what better way to scare the tar out of everybody than with another Black Plague story.
Researchers from Germany and Canada have now determined that the pathogen existing today that infects the human population with bubonic plague is the same one that caused the horrific pandemic known as the Black Plague (aka Black Death) during the Middle Ages,
In the 14th century (1347-1351) the the plague devastated much of Europe. It was brought on by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and thought to have originated in China. Rats, infested with fleas carrying the bacteria, spread the fatal pathogen via the trade routes and across Europe, wiping out one-third of the human population. This is a conservative estimate; some claim as much as 60 percent of the population was eradicated!
Whatever the case, imagine even a third of all your acquaintances, friends, and relatives suddenly dying from what one 14th century chronicler described as “so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death.”
And it was an extremely horrible death, to say the least, as Michael Platiensis makes clear in his writings from 1357:
“Those infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed on the thighs or upper arms a boil about the size of a lentil which the people called "burn boil". This infected the whole body, and penetrated it so that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired.“
[Above quoted in Johannes Nohl, The Black Death, trans. C.H. Clarke (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1926), pp. 18-20]
The Black Plague was the second of three great waves of plague that raged across Europe during historical times. The first, known historically as the Plague of Justinian, took place in the 6th century and affected the Byzantine Empire and much of Europe. The last major wave, known as the Great Plague of London, killed about 100,000 of the city’s population in 1664-65. In the two centuries that followed, waves after wave of the plague continued to devastate the European population although on a lesser scale. These outbreaks although sometimes as virulent, were often more isolated regionally or within a city and kept Europe’s population from rebounding for a good century and a half.
The plague presents itself in three ways: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. All three infections are caused by Y. pestis. With bubonic plague, the lymph nodes become painfully swollen into what are termed buboes – hence the name bubonic. Scepticemic plague, the rarest of the three forms, infects the blood. Both bubonic and scepticemic, if left untreated, result in death between 3-7 days after infection. Pneumonic is the most contagious since it infects the lungs and is easily spread through the air in a spray of water droplets. It’s also the most lethal and usually kills its victims in one to three days. Each form can present itself on its own or can progress into all three. It’s thought the Black Plague was mainly a combination of the bubonic and pneumonic forms. (The practice still used today of saying, “Bless you” after someone sneezes is a holdover from the 14th century plague) The only defense against the pandemic was avoidance of fleas and the fatally sick. Not easy to pull off when rats and the afflicted were widespread. Infected families were generally quarantined, their houses marked with a red cross, and left to fend for themselves.
The plague had a tremendous effect on European life in the Middle Ages. The Hundred Years’ War actually paused briefly in 1348 for lack of soldiers. The plague had wiped out too many of them. Economically, wages rose sharply because the workforce was also greatly reduced. Shop owners suffered because no one dared step outside the confines of their own homes, so supplies rose and prices dropped. The removal of the rotting corpses required relatives either doing it themselves and further risking infection, or paying premium prices for some other poor schlub to do it. The dead were buried as quickly as possible, often in mass graves.
In the recent research which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Johannes Krause and his colleagues extracted DNA from the tooth enamel of five corpses from one of these 14th century mass burial sites in London (under the Royal Mint!). Using the latest technology to sequence the DNA fragments, the researchers from the University of Tubingen in Germany, and McMaster University in Canada, decoded a circular genome called pPCP1 plasmid that comprises about 10,000 positions in the Y. pestis DNA. When they compared it with the genome of the pathogen’s current strain, the genetic information appeared to have changed very little over the past six centuries. (It should be noted that the researchers suspect the pathogen that occurred in the 6th century may have been a now-extinct strain of Y. pestis or one completely unrelated to bubonic plague.)
So, that means the very same nasty contagion – the one that terrorized and devastated so much of Europe for so many centuries in the Middle Ages - is still with us today. Luckily, the bubonic plague can be held at bay with antibodies if treated in time. But what happens if Yersinia pestis mutates into a strain against which current antibodies are useless? If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, I don’t know what will.
A male in New Mexico has been confirmed as being infected with the bubonic plague; and has earned the distinction of being the first person to get it this year. The Black Plague, a flea-borne disease, has never gone completely away and individuals in some remote areas are at some risk for catching it. There are about a dozen cases in the United States from bubonic plague annually.
Plague patient admitted to New Mexico hospital
The first person in the United States this year to have the bubonic plague is a 58 year old man from New Mexico. Who this man is has not been released yet. Time states it is being kept secret for now. There are certain plague symptoms. The male had them all. He was admitted with a fever, abdominal and groin pain along with painfully swollen lymph nodes. In plague patients, lymph glands swell to the point where they're visible, which in the Middle Ages came to be referred to as a "bubo," hence the name "bubonic plague.". Wikipedia explained that "bubo" means lymph nodes. It is ancient Greek.
No need to bring out the dead
On average, there are 13 bubonic plague cases annually while 1 to 40 are typically reported, the CDC states. Without treatment, 50 to 90 percent of cases will end in death. That number drops to 15 percent when treated properly. In 2003, the World Health Organization recorded 2,118 cases in nine nations and 182 deaths. Of those cases, 98.7 percent were in Africa, as were 98.9 percent of the deaths. Most cases in the United States occur in New Mexico, according to the Miami New Times. In 2009, there were 6 New Mexico plague cases. Since 1949, there have been 262 cases total. Until the middle of the 20th century, small plague outbreaks were common. The Los Angele Times states that only then did it start to become uncommon. Outbreaks were noted in San Francisco from 1900 to 1908, and epidemics occurred in Oakland in 1919 and LA from 1924 to 1925. The plague was a real issue in 1924 in LA. There were 37 people killed from it.
Comes from fleas
"The bubonic plague, or the Black Plague or Black Death, is caused by a bacteria carried by fleas called Yersinis Pestris. Plague-infected fleas spread it by feeding on small rodents for instance prairie dogs, rats, chipmunks and ground squirrels. Individuals with pets or rodents near can have the fleas on the animal. Then, the flea can jump to the human. The disease is caused when people are bitten by fleas carrying the bacteria. There is a lot of risk in the Southwest. This is where it is the greatest. New Mexico is home to half of all cases, but other cases have occurred in Arizona, California, Nevada and Oregon. Unless the disease becomes pneumonic plague in the lungs, it is non-infections in individuals. It can help to have antibiotics. This has to be within the first 24 hrs of symptoms though.“
Courtesy CDC/ Dr. Jack PolandIn 1348, Pope Clement VI’s physician wrote the following as the “Black Death” hit Avignon: “It was so contagious, especially that accompanied by spitting of blood, that not only by staying together, but even by looking at one another people caught it…The father did not visit his son, nor the son the father. Charity was dead and hope was crushed.” (From Deadly Companions by Dorothy H. Crawford).
Scientists have long suspected that the bacterium Yersinia pestis,which causes bubonic plague, caused the Black Death that killed over 30% of Europe’s population in 1347 and continued to burn through Europe for the next three hundred years. Two teams of scientists reported this week that not only was Yersinia pestis definitely the microbe that caused the Black Death, but that bubonic plague has its roots in China, where it has lived in fleas in the wild rodent populations for thousands of years. Humans are an accidental host of this deadly bacterium, but in three major waves it decimated the populations of Europe, Asia and Africa, causing the most dramatic fall in population ever recorded.
Y. pestis is carried by fleas, who are made ravenous by the bacteria and jump from rodent (often rats) to rodent looking for warm blood and injecting thousands of bacteria with each bite. As rats die, the fleas sense the cooling blood and jump to new victims. If the victim is human, they will probably be infected with bubonic plague and, if untreated with antibiotics (which they didn’t have during the middle ages), stand a pretty good chance of dying. If the infection goes to the victim’s lungs and they infect someone else by coughing on them, that person is as good as dead.
Bubonic plague eventually died out in Europe, but not before infected rats stowed away on ships traveling to the United States in the 1890s, where they arrived in San Francisco and quickly infected the squirrel population. Over 50 kinds of rodents in the Western U.S., Canada and Mexico are potential hosts for Y. pestisis and the bacteria is still surviving in these populations, from California to Colorado. Fortunately, as long as the disease stays in wild rodents and away from urban rat populations, it probably won’t cause many cases of plague in the U.S.A. (there were only 15 in 2006.) We’re lucky to live in the age of antibiotics, which can treat most cases of plague today.
What should you do if you don’t want to catch the “Black Death?” Avoid wild rodents like the plague.
(This blog post was originally posted on the Kitchen Pantry Scientist blog.)
OK, I think the history of infectious disease is fascinating, and I'm a sucker for many things gross, but I'm still a bit surprised that I loved this little quiz game about the bubonic plague as much as I did. You gotta play. Did you love the animation and sound effects as much as I did?