Black Death

June 18, 2012

Torah Kachur

Last weekend a man in Oregon was diagnosed with the plague.  This is THE plague, as in the one that wiped out almost a third of Europeans in the 14th century and has since been synonymous with mass deaths, catacombs and creepy ossuaries across Europe. 


Now North America is freaking out because a man got bitten by his cat and contracted the plague.  For the record, the plague didn't disappear 600 years ago, it's been around popping up in different parts of the world ever since.  There have been recent outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Mozambique, Madagascar, Algeria and India (just in case you were thinking that only unimportant Africa is affected).  There hasn't been the sweeping deaths in these regions that we would expect from hearing that there is a plague outbreak and we haven't seen a massive sweeping pandemic in hundreds of years.  Is the plague as scary as it sounds?




The Black Death was suspected to be caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis, a rather innocent looking fellow whose only desire in life is to survive to see another day.  He's nomadic by nature, living in fleas that get transferred to rats that then gets transferred to humans when the unsuspecting humans get bit by either infected rats or fleas.   


When humans get infected, the bacterium travels to the lymph glands where the little bug sets up shop and causes swelling and warrants the name bubonic plague.  Then the lymph nodes become hemorrhagic, which is just a fancy term for exploding and the baby bacteria spread through the bloodstream and cause septicemia - ie you're a goner.  The plague sounds super scary, but in fact that is a common description of many different lethal infections like anthrax, ebola and the like.  In fact, there are some scholars who think that the modern day plague could not be the same one that travelled so rapidly and so lethally through Europe.  Yersinia pestis may, in fact, be wrongly accused of causing one of the worst losses of life ever in the history of the planet.  Poor Yersinia.


What to do about it?  Simple, take some antibiotics, the news of the plague in Oregon should not make you run to the hills and hide from rats and fleas, it's just a nice sensationalist headline.



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