Bubonic / Pneumonic / Septicemic Plague: Yersinia Pestis

Could bubonic plague strike again?
By Melissa Hogenboom
Science reporter, BBC News

The skeletal remains of plague victims found in Germany

The Black Death killed millions of people in the 14th Century

Scientists have unlocked clues about the strains of bacterium causing two of the world's most devastating plagues, but could it ever kill on a mass scale as it once did?

A team has compared the genomes of the Justinian Plague and the Black Death to find that both were caused by distinct strains of the bacterium Yersinia Pestis.

And while the Justinian Plague strain became extinct, the Black Death-causing pathogen evolved and mutated, still killing today.

Writing in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases, the research team said that knowing how the pathogen evolved in the past was crucial to help them understand possible future strains of plague.

In the 14th Century, the Black Death killed more than half the European population - and 800 years earlier plague had caused similar devastation in the Byzantine empire when Justinian was emperor.

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The plague

The plague is one of the oldest identifiable diseases known to man
Plague is spread from one rodent to another by fleas, and to humans either by the bite of infected fleas or when handling infected hosts
Recent outbreaks have shown that plague may reappear in areas that have long been free of the disease
Plague can be treated with antibiotics such as streptomycin and tetracycline
Madagascar recently recorded 60 deaths from plague
Source: World Health Organization

The team wondered why the earlier strain of plague died out while its cousin, the Black Death, was so successful, spreading worldwide and re-emerging in the 19th Century in Asia.

Plague family tree
To study it, scientists sequenced the Justinian Plague genome by looking at fragments of plague DNA from the teeth of two of its victims.

They then compared this ancient strain to known current strains of plague, to construct a plague "family tree".

The team conclude that the Justinian Plague was an "evolutionary dead end" but are not quite sure why.

A tooth from a victim of the plague
DNA fragments were extracted from teeth
Lead author David Wagner said that it was not likely we would ever see a plague as deadly as the ones from history.

"Plague strains are always emerging from rodent reservoirs, causing disease in humans, but what we don't see are the widespread pandemics because now the public health response would be quick and very concentrated to shut that down."

He added that the strains today were just as deadly as the strains from the past but that "humans have changed".

"We have reduced rat populations and now have antibiotics that can be used to treat human outbreaks before they start to spread on a large scale."

Unlucky humans
But Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University, Canada, who also was part of research team, said that we should still be vigilant.

"The major implication is that this is a disease that can continue to emerge and cause nasty epidemics and so one should be constantly looking for the sourcing spots to where they came from."

He said that the evolution of Y.Pestis has clearly "boomed and gone bust" over time by generating novel mutations as rodents become immune to it.

Dr Poinar told the BBC that despite our modern medicine and better sanitation, frequent global travel could quickly help spread future strains.

Clusters of the bacteria that cause bubonic plague
The bacterium that caused the Black Death was first sequenced in 2011
Helen Donoghue from University College London and who was not involved with the study, said it was impossible to know if the plague could ever re-emerge on a mass scale but that it was very unlikely.

"Humans are only accidental hosts for this organism, it's rodents and the animals that eat them (like fleas).

"It's only when the fleas are starving or when they run out of rats or other rodents - because of heavy rains or when the harvest fails - that fleas will go on to any alternative hosts. Humans were just unlucky."

And she added that at the moment there were so many rodents in the world that there would not be any selection pressures for fleas to look for other hosts.

Dr Poinar said questions still remained about why the Black Death was so much more successful than the Justinian Plague, something scientists are still looking at.

And it is exactly by delving into the ancient DNA of these pathogens from the past, that scientists can begin to understand how they evolved, and why they were so deadly.

Bubonic plague threat in Madagasgar - in 60 seconds
For more on this story, listen to Inside Science on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 16:30 and 21:00. Listen to past episodes of the programme here or download the podcast here.
Not a good idea. Did James Herbert write a novel about this type of thing? He should have.

Black Death skeletons unearthed by Crossrail project
By James Morgan
Science reporter, BBC News

The plague victims' bones reveal clues to their harsh lives in medieval London

Skeletons unearthed in London Crossrail excavations are Black Death victims from the great pandemic of the 14th Century, forensic tests indicate.

Their teeth contain DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis and their graves have been dated to 1348-50.

Records say thousands of Londoners perished and their corpses were dumped in a mass grave outside the City, but its exact location was a mystery.

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This discovery solves a 660-year-old mystery. It's a hugely important step forward”

Jay Carver
Lead archaeologist, Crossrail
Archaeologists now believe it is under Charterhouse Square near the Barbican.

They plan to expand their search for victims across the square - guided by underground radar scans, which have picked up signs of many more graves.

Crossrail's lead archaeologist Jay Carver says the find "solves a 660-year-old mystery".

"This discovery is a hugely important step forward in documenting and understanding Europe's most devastating pandemic," he said.

"Further excavations will follow to see if - as we expect - we are coming across a much bigger mass burial trench."

Scientists enter the pit and examine the skeletons discovered
Between 1347 and 1351 the "Great Pestilence" swept westward across Europe killing millions of people. It later became known as the Black Death.

Continue reading the main story
The plague

The plague is one of the oldest identifiable diseases known to man
Plague is spread from one rodent to another by fleas, and to humans either by the bite of infected fleas or when handling infected hosts
Recent outbreaks have shown that plague may reappear in areas that have long been free of the disease
Plague can be treated with antibiotics such as streptomycin and tetracycline
Source: World Health Organization
It arrived on Britain's shores in 1348 and is believed to have wiped out up to 60% of the population at the time.

In London, two emergency burial grounds were dug outside the walls of the City. One has been found at East Smithfield, while the other is known to lie somewhere in Farringdon.

In March 2013, Crossrail engineers uncovered 25 skeletons in a 5.5m-wide shaft - alongside pottery dated to the mid-14th Century.

Samples from 12 of the corpses were taken for forensic analysis. In at least four cases, scientists found traces of the DNA of the Yersinia pestis, confirming they had contact with the plague prior to their death.

To pinpoint which historical plague outbreak the "Charterhouse 25" could have fallen victim to, the researchers used radio carbon dating.

They determined the burial ground was used in at least two distinct periods - the earliest within the Black Death in 1348-50, followed by a later outbreak in the 1430s.

Crossrail excavations at Charterhouse Square
The bodies were found in a Crossrail shaft
In a bid to understand just how far the grave extends across the square, Crossrail approached the University of Keele to undertake a forensic geophysics survey - using ground-penetrating radar.

The initial scan detected signs of further burials across Charterhouse Square and also the foundations of a building - possibly a chapel.

Traces of plague bacteria were found in the teeth of the skeletons
"We will undertake further excavations in Charterhouse Square later this year to confirm some of the results," said Mr Carver.

The skeletons provide a rare opportunity to study the medieval population of London, according to osteologist Don Walker, of the Museum of London Archaeology.

He said: "We can start to answer questions like: where did they come from and what were their lives like?

"I'm amazed how much you can learn about a person who died more than 600 years ago."

Analysis of isotope levels in the skeletons' bones and teeth indicate that:

Many of the skeletons appear to suffer signs of malnutrition and 16% had rickets.
There is a high rate of back damage and strain indicating heavy manual labour.
The later skeletons from the 1400s had a high rate of upper body injury consistent with being involved in violent altercations.
13 of the skeletons were male, three female, two children, the gender was undetermined in the other seven skeletons.
40% grew up outside London, possibly as far north as Scotland - showing that 14th Century London attracted people from across Britain just as it does today.
Mr Carver said: "We can see from the people here that Londoners weren't living an easy life.

"The combination of a poor diet and generally a struggle means they were very susceptible to the plague at that time and that's possibly one of the explanations for why the Black Death was so devastating."

Jay Carver
Archaeologist Jay Carver hopes to explore more of the burial site
By sequencing the ancient bacterial DNA, researchers hope to understand how the plague has evolved and spread over the centuries.

Globally the infection still kills 2,000 people a year, including countries like Madagascar. Antibiotics are available, but if untreated the disease kills within four days.

Scientists hope to confirm whether the 14th Century strain was the grandmother of all plague that exists today.

The £14.8bn Crossrail project aims to establish a 118km-long (73-mile) high-speed rail link with 37 stations across London, and is due to open in 2018.

The excavations have already unearthed Roman skulls washed down a lost river, a Bronze-Age transport route, and the largest piece of amber ever found in the UK.

The latest announcement comes ahead of a Channel 4 documentary, Return of the Black Death: Secret History, on 6 April, which follows the Charterhouse Square discovery.
Death by Bubonic Plague isn't as "rare" as you would imagine.

Given, there aren't thousands of people being thrown into pits anymore but there is on average one death each year in mainland USA and a few more scattered over Europe and Asia.

Here's something from Huffington Post: Bubonic Plague still kills thousands
China bubonic plague death: Town of 30,000 placed in quarantine after man dies sparking 'Black Death' outbreak fears

The man contracted the disease from a marmot, state media said
ADAM WITHNALL Author Biography Wednesday 23 July 2014

An entire Chinese town of 30,000 people has been quarantined off from the rest of the country after a man living in a nearby village died from bubonic plague.

Police have now had the old town of Yumen city in Gansu province sealed off for more than a week, the Xinhua state media agency said, after a patient died in a local hospital.

All movement between the centre of Yumen and the wider suburban area has been banned, with officers manning 10 checkpoints around the sealed-off district.

According to Xinhua, no one inside the city is currently believed to have contracted the plague, though 151 people who may have come into contact with the man have been placed under direct observation.

Investigators said they think the villager was herding in his fields when he killed a marmot - a small rodent - to cut up and feed to his dog.

He suffered a fever and was admitted to hospital in Yumen, but died last Wednesday. Police initiated the process of locking down the city, as well as the man's home village and town and the fields where he had been working. ...

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world ... 22375.html
An outbreak of plague in Madagascar has killed 40 people and infected almost 80 others, the World Health Organization has said.

The WHO warned of the danger of a "rapid spread" of the disease in the capital, Antananarivo. The situation is worsened by high levels of resistance among fleas to a leading insecticide, the WHO added.

Humans usually develop the bubonic form of the plague after being bitten by an infected flea carried by rodents. If diagnosed early, bubonic plague can be treated with antibiotics.

But 2% of the cases in Madagascar are the more dangerous pneumonic ...

The gerbils did it.

Most would choose the cuddly gerbil over the much-maligned rat. But the latter's bad reputation may not be fully deserved. Central Asian rodents, not rats, prospering under warm variations in climate, could have been to blame for the arrival of the Black Death in Europe in 1347 and for repeated outbreaks of plague over the next four centuries that killed millions of people.

The plague is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which is carried by fleas and mostly affects rodents. Plague has hit Europe a number of times, but the second pandemic – the one that caused the Black Death – remains the most notorious today. Believed to have originally come to Europe from Asia via the Silk Road trading route, it was thought that the repeated plague outbreaks that followed the Black Death epidemic were caused by rodent reservoirs in Europe – bacteria-infested fleas hiding out in rats.

But Nils Christian Stenseth at the University of Oslo, Norway, and colleagues say that instead of rats, it is their furry counterparts in central Asia that are to blame. The team analysed 4119 historical records of post-Black Death plague outbreaks and found that the vast majority were probably caused by similar outbreaks nearby. But they were able to identify 61 outbreaks that took place in 17 harbour areas, including London, Hamburg, Barcelona and Dubrovnik, that were likely to have been caused by maritime imports from Asia. ...

Isn't this a case for leaving it to our Reptilian Overlords? or are they too posh to eat gerbils?
in the original V, the eating-rodent-jaw-dislocation scene..... well, as you can tell, it's never left me.
I admit, when I first heard the gerbil story on the radio, the volume was low and I thought the announcer had said "Germans" instead of "gerbils".

Was horribly embarrassed for a moment there. :eek::oops:
I went on an educational school trip to Eyam (back before kids didn't have to be escorted by at least three hi-vis jacket wearing enhanced CRB checked members of staff) ..... Eyam was the plague village where they all decided to be martyrs, isolate themselves and then die ... (I've probably spelled Eyam wrong) ..
I went on an educational school trip to Eyam (back before kids didn't have to be escorted by at least three hi-vis jacket wearing enhanced CRB checked members of staff) ..... Eyam was the plague village where they all decided to be martyrs, isolate themselves and then die ... (I've probably spelled Eyam wrong) ..

I went there too on a school trip. Didnt really understand the importance of it all back then though. For me it was a day away from school :)
I went there too on a school trip. Didnt really understand the importance of it all back then though. For me it was a day away from school :)

Me to .. we just pricked about at the youth hostel at the top of the hill ..

That brings back memories :)

I couldn't have give two shits about history (like you) back in the time we visited .. we were just trying to get off with girls who were trying to get off with us .. the only Fortean twist I can add is a moment when we'd got back up to the top of the hill and fellow school mates ran up to us afterwards looking scared .. out of breath .. and said they'd run because they'd seen a large black panther .. that was the first time I'd ever heard of ABC's ... is there an Eyam ABC 'thing'?
Well, when we where soon to leave - near the bus, some of us decided to run along a open field and back. One of the "top" lads called Bennett stopped near the far end with fright over something. Has he ran back we like sheep followed. Spooky reading your bit as it left me thinking of this. Dont know what he saw but Id never seen him act like that in front of us. I think he bricked it worrying about the bus but Im not too sure.

Thinking about school outings - I think the teachers treated it in a similar way to we did - a day off :)
On 8th July, 2014, a middle-aged man from Colorado was hospitalized with pneumonia after developing a severe fever and a cough.

The hospital to which the man had been admitted initially identified Pseudomonas luteola as the bacteria responsible for his illness using an automated diagnostic system, but as the man's symptoms worsened, further testing conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) found a bacteria calledYersinia pestis was the cause - a form of pneumonic plague.

An investigation conducted by the Tri-County Health Department (TCHD) involving interviews with the man's family revealed that on June 24th, the man's dog - a 2-year-old male American pit bull terrier - fell severely ill with fever and shortness of breath and was coughing up blood. The dog was euthanized the following day.

The dog's liver and lung tissues were tested for presence of Y. pestis after its owner became ill. The results were positive, confirming that the man had contracted pneumonic plague from the animal - the first report of such an incidence in the US.

Plague existed during the Bronze Age, and infections were common in humans 3,300 years earlier than previously thought, says research published in Cell.

DNA tests on teeth show that plague existed in the Bronze Age, which is earlier than previously believed.
Image credit: Rasmussen et al./Cell 2015
But it took at least 1,000 more years for the bacterium to undergo key genetic changes that enabled the disease, Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis), to spread via fleas and evade the host immune system.

Y. pestis was the notorious culprit behind the 6th century's Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, which killed 30-50% of the European population in the mid-1300s, and the Third Pandemic, which devastated China in the 1850s. A small number of cases occur every year in the US, mostly in the rural west.

The Plague of Athens, nearly 2,500 years ago, and the 2nd century's Antonine Plague, have been linked to the decline of Classical Greece and the undermining of the Roman army.

However, it was not known whether Y. pestis was responsible for these early epidemics, because there was no direct molecular evidence for this bacterium from skeletal material older than 1,500 years.

17th century plot to use plague hats as bioweapons revealed

DON’T try on that fez. During the world’s longest siege, a 17th-century scientist hatched an ambitious plan – to weaponise the bubonic plague by painting it onto hats.

The plot, which has just come to light, was discovered by Eleni Thalassinou at the University of Athens in Greece and her colleagues in six letters sent between 1649 and 1651. During that time, the town now known as Heraklion in Crete was under Venetian control but besieged by Ottoman troops.

Michiel Angelo Salamon, a doctor in what is now Croatia, had an idea. The letters, sent between the rulers of the Venetian empire and the governor of a Croatian outpost, detail Salamon’s scheme for harnessing the plague, the deadly infection that swept across Europe in 1348 and had been circulating there ever since.

Salamon appears to have devised a method for distilling the essence of plague. “He availed himself of the presence here of the plague to distil a liquid expressed from the spleen, the buboes and carbuncles of the plague stricken,” wrote the governor of Zara (Historical Review, doi.org/9fs).

The governor proposed painting this liquid onto goods that besieging Turks were likely to buy – such as hats known as Albanian fezzes ...

A single strain of plague bacteria sparked multiple historical and modern pandemics
A single entry of the plague bacterium into Europe was responsible for the Black Plague of the mid-14th century. This same strain sparked recurrent outbreaks on the continent over the following four centuries before spreading to China, where it triggered the third plague pandemic in the late 19th century. The wave of plague that traveled to Asia later became the source population for modern-day epidemics around the globe. The bacterium's routes over time were revealed by genome analyses published in Cell Host & Microbe.

"Our study is the first to provide genetic support for plague's travel from Europe into Asia after the Black Death, and it establishes a link between the Black Death in the mid-14th century and modern plague," says first author Maria Spyrou of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, is one of the deadliest pathogens in human history, sparking three major pandemics: the Plague of Justinian, which struck the Roman Empire during the 6th and 8th centuries; the second plague pandemic, which first erupted in Europe in the mid-14th-century Black Death and continued to strike the continent in recurrent outbreaks until the mid-18th century; and the third plague pandemic, which emerged in China during the late 19th century. ...

It hasn't gone away you know. Even in the US people die from the Plague and now the fleas which carry the Plague bacterium now infest squirrels and prairie dogs in the US South West.

The return of the plague
Why some diseases are hard to eradicate

Jul 5th 2017


BUBONIC plague brought terror to medieval Europe. Over a third of its population perished from the “Black Death” in the 14th century, hastening the end of the feudal system. As a bacterial disease, the plague these days is generally treatable with modern antibiotics. Nonetheless, it persists beyond the grim chapters of history. On June 26th health authorities in New Mexico, in the south-western United States, announced that three people had been diagnosed with the disease in the previous month alone. This is a marked uptick for a country that records around seven cases a year nationwide, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. ...

More on the Plague in Arizona. Campers etc beware.

Fleas are testing positive for the plague in parts of Arizona

Officials in two Arizona counties are warning the public after fleas in the region tested positive for the plague, the infamous infectious disease that killed millions during the Middle Ages.

Navajo County Public Health officials confirmed on Friday that fleas in the area have tested positive for the rare disease. The public health warning follows a similar notice from Coconino County Public Health Services District in Arizona warning of the presence of plague in fleas found there too.

Both counties are situated in the northern part of Arizona.

"Navajo County Health Department is urging the public to take precautions to reduce their risk of exposure to this serious disease, which can be present in fleas, rodents, rabbits and predators that feed upon these animals," the public health warning states. "The disease can be transmitted to humans and other animals by the bite of an infected flea or by direct contact with an infected animal." ...

Ha. Just came on to post this same story from The Independent. :)

Man... what is going wrong when things like this start coming back.
Nine countries and overseas territories in the African region have been warned to prepare for a plague outbreak which has killed more than 120 people in Madagascar.

There are fears the infectious disease could spread via air and sea travel from the island in the Indian Ocean as hospitals in places popular with Irish tourists have been told to expect new cases there.
The epidemic in Madagascar has killed 124 people since August, with the island's two main, densely populated cities being hit the hardest, and the death toll is expected to rise.

Irish tourists travelling to the region have already been warned to take precautions against the plague, known as the "Black Death" for high death rates through the centuries.

How hasn't this made the BBC etc? As of yesterday it was The Sun (!?) amongst a few others with the story about plague in Madagascar
I was wondering why Irish people were being warned about it - do more Irish visit there than tourists of other nationalities? - until I spotted the name of the website, the Irish Mirror. Durr. Someone's on the ball, and they're Irish! Good work!
No, I did wonder why the clip referred specifically to Irish people. As has been noted, nobody else seems interested in a very serious health issue.