History has a fair share of plague outbreaks, resulting in millions of deaths and millions of economic costs. Plagues are considered the most notorious epidemics in history, leading people to think that governments are using them as a biological weapon to incite fear. The Plague of Justinian, for instance, caused nearly 100 million deaths in Europe before it subsided in the 700s. It was the first well-documented crisis which began in 542 A.D.
Of all plagues, the so-called Black Death was the most infamous. Also known as the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death hit Europe in 1347, claiming an astonishing 200 million lives in just four years. Several historical texts said that the outbreak started in China in 1334, spreading along trade routes and reaching Europe via Sicilian ports in the late 1340s. It was believed that the plague’s third epidemic was finally wiped out in London by the Great Fire of 1666.
Sadly, this is not true. Historians say that the number of people dying from the plague was already in decline before the fire. People continued to die after it had been extinguished. Also, several centuries later, bubonic plague cases are still reported in many parts of the world.
Bubonic Plague: Did it End?
It’s definitely not a good time for previous plague outbreaks to make a comeback, especially since we are experiencing a pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has already infected millions of people and caused the deaths of hundreds and thousands of patients.
The Bubonic Plague was a disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which circulates among wild rodents where they live in great numbers and density. Humans are easy targets of black rats since we live close to them. When humans get infected, the contagion drains to a lymph node that consequently swells to form a painful bubo. Hence, the name bubonic plague. The swelling often appeared in the groin, on the thigh, in an armpit or on the neck of a person.
According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, the Black Death lingered on for centuries, particularly in cities. The plague was able to destroy a higher proportion of Europe’s population than any other single known event in the years between 1346 and 1353. While experts said that it was relatively well-contained in the Isles, the virus achieved even greater potency when it became airborne, quickly spreading to more humans.
One observer noted: “The living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead.” However, realizing that there’s an epidemic during that time wasn’t easy. It took some time before people realized that a terrible epidemic was breaking out among them. In the countryside, for instance, it took about 40 days; 6 to 7 weeks in towns with a few thousand inhabitants; 7 weeks in cities with over 10,000 inhabitants, and about 8 weeks in metropolises with over 100,000 inhabitants.
Many believed that the implementation of quarantines in many countries during that time ended the plague. Improvements in personal hygiene are also thought to have helped. However, the plague didn’t totally end. While the plague is extremely rare today, there’s still a couple of thousands of cases reported across the world every year. Most of these are in Africa, India, and Peru.
According to Healthline, an American website and provider of health information, the US reports about seven cases of Bubonic Plague every year. The cases are typically reported in Southwestern states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, where wild rodents carry the bacteria. The World Health Organization said that the plague can cause death in up to 60% of infected people if there’s no proper treatment.
“There is a transmission of plague among wild rodents only in certain areas of the US, and these areas are generally very sparsely populated so there is not much opportunity for humans to come into contact with fleas or animals carrying the plague,” Dr. Shanti Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, said.
2016 data also shows that there’s a possibility that the plague exists in almost every continent, especially the western US, parts of Brazil, scattered areas in southeast Africa, and large swaths of China, India, and the Middle East.
Should People Be Worried?
Recently, a hospital in China alerted municipal authorities of a suspected Bubonic Plague case in the city of Bayannur, located northwest of Beijing. Local authorities in the country have already issued a citywide Level 3 warning for plague prevention, the second-lowest in a four-level system. The plague diagnosis comes months after the Chinese government announced that three people had contracted pneumonic plague in the country late last year.
According to CNN, an American news-based pay television channel owned by AT&T's WarnerMedia, officials in Bayan Nur are encouraging people to take extra precautions to minimize the risk of human-to-human transmission. This includes avoiding hunting, skinning, or eating animals that could cause infection. They also warned the public to report findings of dead or sick marmots, which have historically caused plague outbreaks in some parts of China and the neighboring country Mongolia.
"At present, there is a risk of a human plague epidemic spreading in this city. The public should improve its self-protection awareness and ability, and report abnormal health conditions promptly," the local health authority said.
While the Bubonic Plague would be a concern locally within Inner Mongolia, Dr. Michael Head, a senior research fellow of global health at the University of Southampton, clarified that it is not going to become a global threat as we have seen with COVID-19. Unlike before, we have antibiotics that prevent the type of rapid spread witnessed in Europe in the Middle Ages.
"While plague causes severe illness, if it is recognized promptly then it can be easily treated with antibiotics and patients will make a full recovery. The press reports indicate that this is the case in Inner Mongolia now, suggesting that there is no risk to public health,” Jimmy Whitworth, a professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said.