Bubonic Plague: Is It Still a Threat?


I’m sure many of us have heard about the bubonic plague before in a historical sense and associated it with poor sanitation and the childhood chant “Ring around the Rosie”. It’s possible that many of us have also heard that the plague may not be so historical anymore and that there have been recent outbreaks in the United States.

The Black Death

black-death, Causes and Symptoms of Black DeathThe most well-known outbreak of the bubonic plague happened in the late Middle Ages (1340-1400) and was known as the Black Death.  It is thought to have originated China, then, following trade routes, spread to Italy before eventually taking over other European countries.  Believed to have been carried by fleas on rats on ships, the Black Death killed 1/3 of the European population at that time with estimates ranging from 25 to 200 million people.

Causes and Symptoms of Black Death

The plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, a rod-shaped bacillus, and it can live in a variety of hosts including rodents, cats, camels, and humans. It is extremely contagious and can be transferred through direct contact with infected animals, bites from fleas that had previous fed on infected animals, and consumption of infected animals. The bacterium is also airborne making it easier to transfer from human to human. Add in to that close living quarters and poor sanitation and the Middle Ages becomes a breeding ground for the plague.

The symptoms associated with the plague are swollen lymph nodes (buboes) in the groin, armpit or neck which are about the size of a chicken egg and are warm and tender to the touch. Other symptoms are; sudden fever, headaches, muscle aches, and extreme pain. The pain is thought to be from the decaying of the body while the person is still alive. Once symptoms started to appear, it could be guessed that the person would die within about four days.

Modern Plague

bubonic-plague, Causes and Symptoms of Black DeathThere have been several reported cases of the bubonic plague the past couple of years which have prompted a lot of concern among people.  According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, there is an average of seven report human plague cases each year in the United States.  In most of these cases, the plague was contracted by coming in close contact with an affected animal.

Historically, the catching the plague would have been a death sentence but thanks to modern medicine that is not the case anymore. If caught early enough, the plague can be treated with antibiotics. Anywhere between 50-90% of infected individuals will die without treatment.

Medieval vs. Modern

Because of the unprecedented amount of plague cases report in the last several decades, numerous studies have been done to determine if microbial mutations acted as a driving force to increase the host-pathogen interactions.  In one study, Johannse Krause and Hendrik Poinar extracted a medieval strand of the pathogen by using a modern strand.  The medieval strand and the modern strand were nearly identical except for two mutations in the medieval strand that are not currently found in any medieval or modern strand sequence.

This data suggests that the plague may be extinct but some counter the argument saying that the mutations aren’t really mutations at all. They are simply natural degradations of DNA so people are still being affected by the same bacterium that they were in medieval times.

Why it’s Less Threatening

yersinia-pestis, Causes and Symptoms of Black DeathWhether or not the modern version of the plague is a mutation, the plague does not have near the impact on the human population as it once did. This is likely because humans as a whole have culturally adapted to decrease the presence of disease.

Culturally speaking, humans are definitely more hygienically aware now than during the Middle Ages. Modern sewer systems and personal hygiene rituals such as washing your hands have greatly contributed to the decline in diseases.  People do not live in as cramped of quarters as they once did and daily activities have been made much more sanitary. All of these adaptations make us much less likely to catch the bubonic plague. Also, for unique immunity increase FeelGoodTime.net recommends cordyceps and rhodiola rosea.