Black death in a modern world
A look at the plague and why it’s still around
By Kelsey Meany
On Aug. 27, a 15-year-old boy in Kyrgyzstan died of the bubonic plague, the first in the country in 30 years, according to BBC News. The bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Now the Black Death is exceedingly rare, with only 400 cases of the plague reported worldwide in 2012, according to the World Health Organization. But it still raises the question: Why, in this age of technology and medical advancement, are people still dying from a disease that with proper care and antibiotics is completely curable? Even in The United States, plague deaths still occur sporadically. According to news reports, a New Mexico teen contracted the bubonic plague in August, the first U.S. case this year.
Lillian Morris, a Ph.D. student in UF’s who works in the Emerging Pathogens Institute’s Spatial Epidemiology & Ecology Research Laboratory, did her master’s thesis on the spread and cultivation of the disease. Morris analyzed what regions had plague and the change over time. Specifically she looked at Azerbaijan, a country at the “crossroads of Eastern Europe and western Asia that has a history of environmental plague,” she wrote in her abstract.
“When we see human outbreaks it can be a few different things,” Morris said. “One thing is when a human enters an environment, like a state park … the other is some sort of environmental trigger that takes place, like an increase in the rat population.”
Poor sanitary conditions can lead to an increase in rodents, and in time, an increase in plague cases. “That’s where you see it in Third World countries,” she said.
But in First World countries like the United States a variety of other reasons can explain the incidence of the ancient disease. America’s main carriers are groundhogs, said Jason Blackburn, Ph.D., an assistant professor of geography and a member of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. But in other parts of the world, everything from cats to camels are known to carry disease.
Paul Gulig, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Medicine department of molecular genetics and microbiology and the associate dean for graduate education, said one researcher died a few years ago by inhaling plague after opening the carcass of an animal infected with it. Because he inhaled the disease it was even more deadly because it instantly went to his lungs, which is referred to as pneumonic plague. Gulig said the reason bubonic plague still exists today is because of a combination of medical access, economics and awareness. Although the antibiotic is cheap, individuals in certain countries do not have access to doctors and the medical care they need.
“If you’re talking about the urban cycle, you’re going to be talking about a city,” he said. “As soon as somebody got in a city if they got appropriate health care that would be the end of it.” Additionally, because the disease is so rare many doctors don’t expect it. Gulig said at UF’s medical school he and other professors teach rare diseases like this because if it does happen it’s not something to ignore. Side effects of the disease are severe, Gulig said. Some victims have been said to cough up blood. The plague spreads within a number of days and is quick to affect a person. Within a few days of exposure, individuals will be “very, very sick,” he said. Gulig said, “The main thing is rapid treatment and isolating of patients in order to prevent the disease from spreading.”