An incredible fact that the USA still hasn’t eradicated the plague; and that fifteen cases have already been reported this year.
There are still lots of cases of the plague in other countries too: Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru are three more places to take care in!
Apparently it was in 1900 that rat infested steamships brought the bacterium to the US. The disease is generally passed from rats to humans and has a 30-60% fatality rate (i.e.. 30-60% chance of dying if you catch it). Areas to be most careful in are New Mexico, California, Arizona and Colorado.
Most cases of the plague in the US are the bubonic plague, which is the most common form, which affects the lymph nodes and causes gangrene. There are two other types of plague, septicaemic, an infection of the blood, and pneumonic, which infects the lungs.
The Great Plague of 1665 was the last major plague in England. The outbreak began in London in February. Within seven months 100,000 Londoners (20% or one-fifth of the population) were dead. Many fled the capital to escape the disease. Victims were shut in their homes and a red cross was painted on the door with the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’. The theatres and other public entertainments such as football were banned to stop the disease spreading.
Most experts believe that the plague that struck London from the 1300s to the late 1600s was bubonic plague. Bubonic plague is a disease of rodents, especially black rats. It is passed between them by bites from their fleas. When a rat dies from the plague, its fleas must find a new host to live on. If their new host is a person, the disease can spread to humans too. The disease takes many forms but the most common symptoms are:
- painful swellings on the neck, armpits and groin (buboes)
- blisters and bruises
- coughing up blood.
The French doctor Alexandre Yersin discovered the bacterium that causes bubonic plague in 1894. In 1908 experts realised that rat fleas spread plague.
Moving further back in history to the 14th century we go to the Black Death. During the Medieval period the plague went by several names, the most common being “the Pestilence” and “The Great Mortality”. Theories about the cause of the disease were numerous, ranging from a punishment from God to planetary alignment to evil stares. Not surprisingly, many people believed that the horrors of the Black Death signaled the Apocalypse, or end of time. Others believed that the disease was a plot by Jews to poison all of the Christian world, and many Jews were killed by panicked mobs.The truth was that the Black Death was a bacteria-born disease; the bacteria in question being Yersinia pestis, which was carried in the blood of wild black rats and the fleas that lived off the rats. Normally there is no contact between these fleas and human beings, but when their rat hosts die, these fleas are forced to seek alternatives – including humans!
The plague produced several different symptoms in its victims. Bubonic, the most common form of the plague, produces fist-sized swellings, called bulboes, at the site of flea bites – usually in the groin, armpits, or neck. The swellings were intensely painful, and the victims died in 2-6 days. The buboes were red at first, but later turned a dark purple, or black. This black colouring gives the “Black Death” its name. Pneumonic plague occurred when the infection enters the lungs, causing the victim to vomit blood. Infected pneumonic people could spread the disease through the air by coughing, sneezing, or just breathing! In Septicemic plague the bacteria enters the person’s bloodstream, causing death within a day.
The speed with which the disease could kill was terrifying to inhabitants of the medieval world. The Italian author Boccaccio claimed that the plague victims “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.” In the summer of 1348 it was abnormally wet in Britain. Grain lay rotting in the fields due to the nearly constant rains. With the harvest so badly affected it seemed certain that there would be food shortages. But a far worse enemy was set to appear. On November 1 the plague reached London, and up to 30,000 of the city’s population of 70,000 inhabitants succumbed.
Over the next 2 years the disease killed between 30-40% of the entire population. Given that the pre-plague population of England was in the range of 5-6 million people, fatalities may have reached as high as 2 million dead.
One of the worst aspects of the disease to the medieval Christian mind is that people died without last rites and without having a chance to confess their sins. Pope Clement VI was forced to grant remission of sins to all who died of the plague because so many perished without benefit of clergy. People were allowed to confess their sins to one another, or “even to a woman”.