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Wednesday, 8 March 2017


Plague is an infectious disease that is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The Yersinia murine toxin allows the bacteria to infect fleas, which can then transmit bubonic plague.

Plague is not a synonym for epidemic, but actually a specific disease. Bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plague are all caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis.

The bacterium is named after the French-Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin, who announced his isolation on June 20, 1894 of the bacterium responsible for the plague.

Yersinia pestis seen at 200× magnification with a fluorescent label. 
Depending on lung infection, or sanitary conditions, plague can be spread in the air or by direct contact.

Until June 2007, plague was one of the three epidemic diseases specifically reportable to the World Health Organization (cholera and yellow fever the other two).

Ashdod is mentioned among the principal Philistine cities in the Bible. 1 Samuel 5 & 6 tells us how after capturing the Ark of the covenant from the Israelites, the Philistines took it to Ashdod and placed it in the temple of Dagon. When the people of Ashdod were smitten with the plague they sent the Ark of the covenant back to the Israelites.

Nicolas Poussin, The Plague of Ashdod, 1630

The Antonine Plague of 165–180 AD was an ancient pandemic brought back to the Roman Empire by troops returning from campaigns in the Near East. The mortality rate of the plague was 7–10 percent; the outbreak in 165 - 168 would have caused approximately 3.5 to 5 million deaths. Some experts believe that over half the population of the empire perished.

At its peak the Plague killed 2,000 people a day in Rome— farmers nearby couldn’t find enough laborers to harvest their crops, and food shortages led to riots in the streets.

The willingness of Christians to care for others was put on dramatic public display when the great plagues swept the Roman empire.  Pagans tried to avoid all contact with the afflicted, often casting the still living into the gutters. Christians, on the other hand, nursed the sick even though some believers died doing so. As a result of this elementary nursing, Christians were more likely than pagans to recover—a visible benefit.

A hand showing acral gangrene of the digits due to plague

The Plague of Justinian in AD 541–542 marks the first firmly recorded pattern of bubonic plague. The plague swept through much of the civilized world, killing up to 10,000 a day in Constantinople alone. The Emperor Justinian caught the disease but managed to recover. It is estimated that the Roman Empire has lost about a quarter of its population to this disease.

This first plague pandemic starting with the Plague of Justinian lasted until 750. It caused Europe's population to drop by around 50% between the 6th and 8th centuries.

The Black Death, a massive and deadly pandemic originating in China, spread along the Silk Road and swept through Asia, Europe and Africa between 1347-1351. 70% of people who got plague died. China lost around half of its population, from around 123 million to around 65 million and Europe around  one third  of its population, from about 75 million to about 50 million.

Map showing the spread of the Black Death in Europe during the 1347–1351 pandemic. By Original by Roger Zenner

When the bubonic plague gripped Europe during the Middle Ages, ships would be isolated in harbor for 40 days before passengers could go ashore. The Italian word for 40 is quaranta, hence quarantine

In 1603 30,000 Londoners died from the plague. Queen Elizabeth I responded to the national crisis by fleeing with her court to Windsor Castle where she had a gallows set up with the promise that she would hang anyone who tried to follow her.

The last outbreak of bubonic plague in Western Europe started in Marseille, France when the Grand St Antoine merchant ship docked at the port there on May 25, 1770. Known as the Great Plague of Marseille, it killed around 100,000: half in the city itself and half in the surrounding towns and provinces.

After World War II, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed means of weaponising pneumonic plague. Samples of this bacteria are meant to be carefully controlled. However, Dr. Thomas C. Butler, a US scientist specializing in infectious diseases was charged in October 2003 by the FBI with various crimes after 30 vials of plague went missing from his laboratory. The FBI did not find the samples and never found out what happened to them.


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