Bubonic plague is a disease that is typically passed from rodents to other animals and humans via the bite of a flea. The flea acquires the bacterium that causes the disease as it lives on the skin of the rodent. Humans can also acquire the disease by direct contact with infected tissue. The bacterium is called Yersinia pestis, after one of its co-discoverers, Alexandre Yersin.
The disease is named because of the symptoms. The bacterial infection produces a painful swelling of the lymph nodes. These are called buboes. Often the first swelling is evident in the groin. During the Middle Ages, an huge epidemic of bubonic plague was referred to as the Black Death, because of the blackening of the skin due to the dried blood that accumulated under the skin's surface.
The bubonic plague has been a significant cause of misery and death throughout recorded history. The Black Death was only one of many epidemics of plague that extend back to the beginning of recorded history. Biblical descriptions of some disease outbreaks likely involved bubonic plague. The first recorded outbreak of bubonic plague was in 54243. This plague destroyed the attempts of the Roman emperor of the day to re-establish a Roman empire in Europe. This is only one example of how bubonic plague has changed the course of history.
The plague of London in 1665 killed over 17,000 people (almost twenty percent of the city's population). This outbreak was quelled by a huge fire that destroyed most of the city.
The disease remains present to this day. In North America, the last large epidemic occurred in Los Angeles in 1925. With the advent of the antibiotic, era bubonic plague has been controlled in the developed world. However, sporadic cases (e.g., 10 to 15 cases each year) still occur in the western United States. In less developed countries (e.g., in Africa, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil) thousands of cases are reported each year.
The infrequent outbreaks of bubonic plague does not mean the disease disappears altogether. Rather, the disease normally exists in what is called an enzootic state. That is, a few individuals of a certain community (e.g., rodents) harbor the disease. Sometimes, however, environmental conditions cause the disease to spread through the carrier population, causing loss of life. As the rodent populations dies, the fleas that live on them need to find other food sources. This is when the interaction with humans and non-rodent animals can occur. Between outbreaks, Yersinia pestis infects rodents without causing much illness. Thus, the rodents become a reservoir of the infection.
Symptoms of infection in humans begin within days after contamination with the plague bacterium. The bacteria enter the bloodstream and travels to various organs (e.g., kidney, liver, spleen, lungs) as well as to the brain. Symptoms include shivering, nausea with vomiting, headache, intolerance to light, and a whitish-appearing tongue. Buboes then appear, followed by rupture of blood vessels. The released blood can coagulate and turn black.
If the infection is untreated, the death rate in humans approaches 75%. Prompt treatment most often leads to full recovery and a life-long immunity from further infection. Prevention is possible, since a vaccine is available. Unfortunately, the vaccine is protective for only a few months. Use of the vaccine is usually reserved for those who will be at high risk for acquiring the bacterial infection (e.g., soldiers, travelers to an outbreak region). Antibiotics such as tetracycline or sulfonamide are used more commonly as a precaution for those who might be exposed to the bacterium. Such use of antibiotics should be stopped once the risk of infection is gone, to avoid the development of resistance in other bacteria resident in the body.
These modern day treatment and preventative measures are a marked improvement from earlier times. In the fourteenth century, treatments included bathing in human urine, wearing feces, having a dead animal present in the home, and drinking concoctions of molten gold and crushed emeralds. As time progressed, even though the cause of the disease was still unknown, the preventative measures became more constructive. By the fifteenth century, for example, incoming ships were required to anchor offshore for 40 days before cargo or people could disembark. Quarantine is still practiced today as a protective measure for some diseases.
The most effective way to prevent bubonic plague is the maintenance of adequate sanitary conditions. This acts to control the rodent population, especially in urban centers.
See also Bacteria and bacterial infection; Epidemics and pandemics; Zoonoses
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