Black Death is the most renowned and one of the deadliest pandemic (worldwide epidemics) in history, killing an estimated 75 million lives worldwide. It claimed almost half of Europe’s population and is believed to have reduced the global population by a quarter in the 1400s. The disease still exists today. Should we be worried?

Y. Pestis Bacterium

The bubonic plague or Black Death is a serious infection of the lymphatic system that mainly affects rodents but is transmissible to humans by the bites of rodent fleas. The bacterium circulates mainly among wild rodents such as prairie dogs and ground squirrels. It is spread among rodents by rodent fleas.

Sometimes so many wild rodents die that the fleas transfer to and infest new hosts such as rats. The great pandemic of the past were caused by plague from wild rodents to rats in the cities and from rat fleas it eventually infected humans.

Once established, the bacterium Yersinia pestis, can rapidly spread to the lymph nodes and multiply. Complications include septicemia (blood poisoning) and when it spreads to the lungs, it becomes pneumonic plague. If a victim isn’t treated quickly, the bacteria will flood the body with toxins leading to internal bleeding, organ failure and death.

In recent years, outbreaks have been confined mainly to parts of Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. In the US, bubonic plague is present in rodents such as ground squirrels, prairie dogs, marmots and chipmunks in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Colorado and Nevada where an average of 13 cases are reported annually.

Symptoms include: fever, shivering and severe headache two to five days after infection. The buboes then start to appear. The smooth, oval, reddened and extremely painful swellings are usually found in the groin, less commonly in the armpits, neck and other body parts.  There may be bleeding into the skin surrounding the swellings, resulting in black patches as you see here below.

DONT WORRY!!!! – Today, various antibiotics are effective in treating bubonic plague including streptomycin and everyone’s old friend Tetracycline (don’t go in the sun though!)

Patients can recover quickly with prompt diagnosis and treatment. A vaccine is also available for people in high-risk occupations such as agricultural workers within plague areas. Yet another reason why getting an advanced degree really pays off!  😉

There is a constant risk of plague spreading to urban rat populations. To prevent this, rat control and surveillance of wild rodents are important. Hikers in areas where plague is present should not touch rodents or any dead carcass.