Plague: The Black Death

Quake42

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#61
Black Death

Couldn't find an existing thread on this; feel free to merge if one existed. Interesting research:

Black Death genetic code

The genetic code of the germ that caused the Black Death has been reconstructed by scientists for the first time.

The researchers extracted DNA fragments of the ancient bacterium from the teeth of medieval corpses found in London.

They say the pathogen is the ancestor of all modern plagues.

The research, published in the journal Nature, suggests the 14th Century outbreak was also the first plague pandemic in history.

Humans have rarely encountered an enemy as devastating as the bacterium, Yersinia pestis. Between 1347 and 1351 it sparked the Black Death, an infection carried by fleas that spread rapidly across Europe killing around 50 million people.

Now scientists have uncovered some of the genetic secrets of the plague, thanks to DNA fragments drilled from the teeth of victims buried in a graveyard in London's East Smithfield.

Professor Johannes Krause from the University of Tubingen, Germany, was a member of the research team. He said all current strains circulating in the world are directly related to the medieval bacterium.

"It turns out that this ancient Yersinia pestis strain is very close to the common ancestor of all modern strains that can infect humans," he said.

"It's the grandmother of all plague that's around today."

Previously researchers had assumed the Black Death was another in a long line of plague outbreaks dating back to ancient Greece and Rome.

The Justinian Plague that broke out in the 6th Century was estimated to have killed 100 million people. But the new research indicates that plagues like the Justinian weren't caused by the same agent as the medieval epidemic.

"It suggests they were either caused by a Yersinia pestis strain that is completely extinct and it didn't leave any descendants which are still around today or it was caused by a different pathogen that we have no information about yet," said Professor Krause.

Tooth power

Globally the infection still kills 2,000 people a year. But it presents much less of a threat now than in the 14th Century.

DNA fragments were extracted from teeth
According to another member of the research team, Dr Hendrik Poinar, a combination of factors enhanced the virulence of the medieval outbreak.

"We are looking at many different factors that affected this pandemic, the virulence of the pathogen, co-circulating pathogens, and the climate which we know was beginning to dip - it got very cold very wet very quickly - this constellation resulted in the ultimate Black Death."

Rebuilding the genetic code of the bacterium from DNA fragments was not easy, say the scientists.

They removed teeth from skeletons found in an ancient graveyard in London located under what is now the Royal Mint.

Dr Kirsten Bos from McMaster University explained how the process worked.

"If you actually crack open an ancient tooth you see this dark black powdery material and that's very likely to be dried up blood and other biological tissues.

"So what I did was I opened the tooth and opened the pulp chamber and with a drill bit made one pass through and I took out only about 30 milligrams of material, a very very small amount and that's the material I used to do the DNA work."

From the dental pulp the researchers were able to purify and enrich the pathogen's DNA, and exclude material from human and fungal sources.

The researchers believe the techniques they have developed in this work can be used to study the genomes of many other ancient pathogens.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-15278366
 

GNC

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#64
There's an article in the current FT about the Black Death that says it might not have been spread by rats and fleas at all, because the facts don't quite add up.
 

Mythopoeika

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#66
CuriousIdent said:
Are we sure that extracting long dead disease, and bringing it back to life, is really that great an idea? :shock:
It isn't that great an idea, but most people in Europe have a certain level of hereditary immunity. Also, nutrition, healthcare and medicine are much better than they were in the time of The Black Death. These days, if you catch it, the medics will just dose you up with something.
 

Anome

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#67
No, it's not a terribly good idea, but there may be benefits to doing it.

Although, Y. Pestis is hardly long dead. It exists in rodent populations in California, and other parts of the world, although the current infection rate is no more than a couple of individuals a year. And as long as it's just Bubonic Plague, they can be treated with antibiotics usually. (Pneumonic Plague is much nastier. Probably can be cured with antibiotics, but you'd have to get to them fast.)

There is of course, also the theory that the Black Death wasn't Y. Pestis at all, but something else. There are, as noted above, inconsistencies in the epidemiological profile.
 

MrRING

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#68
http://news.yahoo.com/plague-rare-u-surfacing-more-affluent-areas-180408195.html

Plague Rare in U.S., Surfacing in More Affluent Areas
HealthDayBy Steven Reinberg


WEDNESDAY, June 13 (HealthDay News) -- Although the plague is typically considered a remnant of the Middle Ages, when unsanitary conditions and rodent infestations prevailed amid the squalor of poverty, this rare but deadly disease appears to be spreading through wealthier communities in New Mexico, researchers report.

Why the plague is popping up in affluent neighborhoods isn't completely clear, the experts added.

"Where human plague cases occur is linked to where people live and how people interact with their environment," noted lead researcher Anna Schotthoefer, from the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation in Wisconsin. "These factors may change over time, necessitating periodic reassessments of the factors that put people at risk."

This latest study confirms previous reports that living within or close to the natural environments that support plague is a risk factor for human plague, Schotthoefer said.

Plague is caused by a fast-moving bacteria, known as Yersinia pestis, that is spread through flea bites (bubonic plague) or through the air (pneumonic plague).

The new report comes on the heels of the hospitalization on June 8 of an Oregon man in his 50s with what experts suspect is plague. According to The Oregonian, the man got sick a few days after being bitten as he tried to get a mouse away from a stray cat. The cat died days later, the paper said, and the man remains in critical condition.

For the new study, published in the July issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, the researchers used U.S. Census Bureau data to pinpoint the location and socioeconomic status of plague patients.

About 11 cases of plague a year have occurred in the United States since 1976, with most cases found in New Mexico. Plague has also been reported in a handful of other states.

Although many cases were in areas where the habitat supports rodents and fleas, the researchers also found cases occurring in more upper-class neighborhoods. In the 1980s, most cases occurred where housing conditions were poor, but more recently cases have been reported in affluent areas of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the investigators found.

"The shift from poorer to more affluent regions of New Mexico was a surprise, and suggests that homeowners in these newly developed areas should be educated about the risks of plague," Schotthoefer said.

Schotthoefer noted that these more affluent areas where plague occurred were regions where new housing developments had been built in habitats that support the wild reservoirs of plague, which include ground squirrels and woodrats.

Bubonic plague starts with painful swellings (buboes) of the lymph nodes, which appear in the armpits, legs, neck or groin. Buboes are at first a red color, then they turn a dark purple color, or black. Pneumonic plague starts by infecting the lungs. Other symptoms include a very high fever, delirium, vomiting, muscle pains, bleeding in the lungs and disorientation.

In the 14th century, a plague called the Black Death killed an estimated 30 percent to 60 percent of the European population. Victims died quickly, within days after being infected.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, said he doesn't expect to see that kind of outbreak ever again.

"This is not a disease of the past, but you are never going to see a massive outbreak of plague in this country," he said.

"We don't have the public health problems we used to have and people would be quickly confined if there were ever a large number of cases," Siegel explained.

Yet, it is not surprising to see plague in these more affluent areas, he noted.

"We know that plague only exists where you have wild animals, and once a reservoir of plague is already present it is likely to persist," Siegel explained. "It isn't only about squalor; it's about where the reservoir is."

However, if the disease is caught early it is treatable with antibiotics, Siegel added.
 

dreeness

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#70
According to The Oregonian, the man got sick a few days after being bitten as he tried to get a mouse away from a stray cat.

:?


Why was the man trying to get a mouse away from a stray cat?!
 

GNC

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#72
dreeness said:
Why was the man trying to get a mouse away from a stray cat?!
Exposure to too many Tom and Jerry cartoons?
 

EnolaGaia

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#73
Some of the news stories claim he was trying to save the mouse from the cat.
 

krakenten

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#74
I'm fond of mousies, but saving them from a cat is futile, they die of shock, poor things.

I also love cats, and dogs most of all.

It's a hard old world!
 
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#75
Plague survivors were stronger and lived longer.

Decoding the Black Death: Anthropologist Finds Clues in Medieval Skeletons
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/20 ... 134826.htm

Skeletal marker: Linear enamel hypoplasia. (Credit: Sharon DeWitte)
ScienceDaily (Sep. 5, 2012) — Each time Sharon DeWitte takes a 3-foot by 1-foot archival box off the shelf at the Museum of London she hopes it will be heavy.

"Heavy means you know you have a relatively complete skeleton," said DeWitte, an anthropologist at the University of South Carolina who has spent summers examining hundreds of Medieval skeletons, each time shedding new light on the dark subject of the Black Death.

Since 2003, DeWitte has been studying the medieval mass killer that wiped out 30 percent of Europeans and nearly half of Londoners from 1347-1351. She is among a small group of scientists devoted to decoding the ancient plague and the person researchers turn to for providing evidence from skeletal remains.

Her findings may provide clues about the effects of disease on human evolution.

"It can tell us something about the nature of human variation today and whether there is an artifact of diseases we have faced in the past. Knowing how strongly these diseases can actually shape human biology can give us tools to work with in the future to understand disease and how it might affect us," she said.

Having previously analyzed more than 600 skeletons of people who died during and after the Black Death, DeWitte turned her attention this summer to studying the remains of some 300 people who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries before the Black Death. Comparing the life span of people who lived before and after the blight, she expected to see a post-Black Death population that lived longer. The more complete the skeletons she studies, the more information she has about the people and their health at the time they died.

"I found that a significantly higher number of people were living to really old ages after the Black Death. Many people lived beyond the age of 50 and particularly above the age of 70," DeWitte said. "I honestly was surprised by how dramatic the difference was in their survival. I've analyzed risks of mortality within the pre-and post-Black Death populations, and the preliminary results suggest lower overall risks of mortality after the Black Death."

DeWitte attributes the longevity of the population to two things: The Black Death's selectivity in targeting people who were frail and in poor health and a rise in living standards after the Black Death that resulted in better diet and improved housing.

"We see this pattern in modern populations. With improvements in diet, medical care and hygiene, you tend to see decreases in death from infectious disease," DeWitte said. "Many people who survived the Black Death did so because they were basically healthier and their descendants were probably healthier. Because so many people died from the Black Death, wages increased for the people who survived. People of all social classes were eating better food, which would have had strong effects on health."

DeWitte, an assistant professor in USC's College of Arts and Sciences, spent five weeks in London gathering data, checking out 12 to 16 boxes each day from the museum's holdings. In each box, under a thin layer of foam, are parts of a skeleton arranged in separate and clear bags and marked with a cemetery code, burial number and excavation date.

"I look for the parts of the skeleton that are going to tell me about age at death and sex, and then I look for a suite of skeletal stress markers that give me a general idea of how healthy people were," DeWitte said.

DeWitte says where the two halves of the pelvis meet in the front and join in the rear provide consistent signs of adult aging. For children, teeth and the fusing of certain bones are among the best indicators of age. To determine sex, she looks for a wider pelvis in women and a squared jaw and skull made rugged along the forehead and back by testosterone in men.

A trio of skeletal markers provides DeWitte with clues about general health.

She looks for porous lesions that form on the top inside of the eye socket and the top of the skull. The sponge-like appearance of the lesion indicates diseases such as anemia, the result of a common response by the body to redirect iron sources when fighting infection, or scurvy.

She also examines for linear enamel hypoplasia, or little horizontal grooves that form on the teeth of children whose enamel formation was interrupted by malnutrition or infectious disease. Visible to the naked eye, these defects remain through adulthood and tell DeWitte the ages of when the health disturbances would have occurred.

"These markers are an indication of stress to the body's health," she said.

DeWitte's research in London this summer was funded by grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the American Association for Physical Anthropologists. After collecting the data, she headed to Santa Fe, N.M., for a residential fellowship at the School for Advanced Research to analyze it.

She said she plans to return to London next summer to investigate skeletons excavated from London's Spitalfields cemetery, which was excavated in the 1990s and includes mass graves.

"I want to look at a series of people over time who died right before the Black Death -- from 1000 to 1200 and then from 1200 to 1300 -- to see the general trends in health and to understand essentially how sick people were before the Black Death," DeWitte said.

"Historical documents suggest there were repeated crop famines and huge die-offs of cattle and sheep. I want to look at carefully whether people increasingly were becoming less healthy right before the Black Death to get at the question of why the Black Death emerged when it did."

This year she also will begin collaborating with DNA experts at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario to look at human genetic variation before and after the Black Death.

"The survivors were either tremendously lucky or there was something about them that made them better able to resist the Black Death or mount a really strong immune response to disease," DeWitte said. ###

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by University of South Carolina.
 

staticgirl

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#76
Very interesting!

It would be interesting if she or someone else was to study the following popuations up to 1800 too to investigate the following waves of plague and other epidemics.

I wonder how the afeter effects of Spanish flu affected the populations of Europe in the 1920s.....
 

Ringo

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#77
OldTimeRadio said:
Thie prvious post gives me an opportunity to ask a question that has dogged me for years - Where the 19th Century European outbreaks of Septicemic Plague which were (then) blamed upon decayiing corpses piled high on Napoleonic battlefields caused by Yersinia Pestis, or was this another disease entirely?
Septicemic Plague is caused by Yersinia Pestis although this form of plague is not caused by inhalation. It is contracted through the bloodstream (infected bite etc) and has an untreated mortality rate of more or less 100%. Nasty way to go.
 

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#80
Mythopoeika said:
Yeah. Aliens are to blame for everything.








:)
The episode looked a bit desperate, talking about weird people or beings appearing in the outskirts of towns and then suddenly the whole towns got the plague.
 

rynner2

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#81
'Black Death pit' unearthed by Crossrail project
By Jason Palmer, Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Excavations for London's Crossrail project have unearthed bodies believed to date from the time of the Black Death.
A burial ground was known to be in an area outside the City of London, but its exact location remained a mystery.
Thirteen bodies have been found so far in the 5.5m-wide shaft at the edge of Charterhouse Square, alongside pottery dated to the mid-14th Century.

Analysis will shed light on the plague and the Londoners of the day.
DNA taken from the skeletons may also help chart the development and spread of the bacterium that caused the plague that became known as the Black Death.

The skeletons' arrangement in two neat rows suggests they date from the earliest era of the Black Death, before it fully developed into the pandemic that in later years saw bodies dumped haphazardly into mass graves.
Archaeologists working for Crossrail and the Museum of London will continue to dig in a bid to discover further remains, or any finds from earlier eras.

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.
Because of the project's underground scope, significant research was undertaken into the archaeology likely to be found during the course of the construction.

Taken together, the project's 40 sites comprise one of the UK's largest archaeological ventures.
Teams have already discovered skeletons near Liverpool Street, a Bronze-Age transport route, and a litany of other finds, including the largest piece of amber ever found in the UK.

"We've found archaeology from pretty much all periods - from the very ancient prehistoric right up to a 20th-Century industrial site, but this site is probably the most important medieval site we've got," said Jay Carver, project archaeologist for Crossrail.
"This is one of the most significant discoveries - quite small in extent but highly significant because of its data and what is represented in the shaft," he told BBC News.

The find is providing more than just a precise location for the long-lost burial ground, said Nick Elsden, project manager from the Museum of London Archaeology, which is working with Crossrail on its sites.
"We've got a snapshot of the population from the 14th Century - we'll look for signs that they'd done a lot of heavy, hard work, which will show on the bones, and general things about their health and their physique," he added.
"That tells us something about the population at the time - about them as individual people, as well as being victims of the Black Death."

In addition, the bodies may contain DNA from the bacteria responsible for the plague - from an early stage in the pandemic - helping modern epidemiologists track the development and spread of differing strains of a pathogen that still exists today.

"It's fantastic. Personally, as an archaeologist, finding good-quality archaeological data which is intact that hasn't been messed around by previous construction is always a great opportunity for new research information - that's why we do the job," said Mr Carver.
"Every hole we're digging is contributing info to London archaeologists, who are constantly piecing together and synthesising the information we've got for London as a whole - it's providing information to slot into that study of London and its history."

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21784141
 
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#83
Boy dies of plague in Kyrgyzstan
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23843656

Clusters of the bacteria that cause bubonic plague

Bubonic plague can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early

A 15-year-old herder has died in Kyrgyzstan of bubonic plague - the first case in the country in 30 years - officials say.

The teenager appears to have been bitten by an infected flea.

The authorities have sought to calm fears of an epidemic and have quarantined more than 100 people.

Bubonic plague, known as the Black Death when it killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe during the Middle Ages, is now rare.

The teenager, named as Temir Issakunov, came from a mountain village in the north-east of the country, close to the border with Kazakhstan.

"We suspect that the patient was infected with the plague through the bite of a flea," health ministry official Tolo Isakov said.

He said teams had been sent to the area to get rid of rodents, which host the fleas that can carry the deadly bacterium.

The teenager died last week, but doctors have only now diagnosed the cause. More than 2,000 people are being tested for bubonic plague in the Issik-Kul region.

Checkpoints have been set up and travel and livestock transport restricted.

Aside from the quarantine measures, doctors have also been prescribing antibiotics in the area.

Kazakhstan is reported to have tightened border controls to prevent the disease entering its territory.

According to the World Health Organisation, the last recorded outbreak of bubonic plague was in Peru in 2010 when 12 people were found to have been infected.
 
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#85
Bubonic plague kills 20 in Madagascar
http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/as ... -1.1624583

Confirmation of rodent-born disease follows Red Cross warning that island country is at risk of plague epidemic

Last year about 60 people died of plague in Madagascar, the highest number globally.

Thu, Dec 12, 2013, 18:08

Once feared as the Black Death, the rodent-borne disease that wiped out one-third of the world’s population in the Middle Ages, bubonic plague has killed 20 villagers in Madagascar in one of the worst outbreaks globally in recent years, health experts have confirmed.

The confirmation that bubonic plague was responsible for the deaths last week near the northwestern town of Mandritsara follows a warning in October from the International Committee of the Red Cross that the island nation was at risk of a plague epidemic.

The Pasteur Institute of Madagascar revealed on Tuesday that tests taken from bodies in the village last week showed they had died of the bubonic plague. The institute said it was concerned the disease could spread to towns and cities where living standards have declined since a coup in 2009.
The deaths are doubly concerning, because the outbreak occurred both outside the island’s normal plague season, which runs from July to October, and apparently at a far lower elevation than usual – suggesting it might be spreading.

Bubonic plague, which has disappeared from Europe and large parts of the globe, is spread by bites from plague-carrying fleas – Xenopsylla cheopis – whose main host is the black rat.

In Europe, the threat of the Black Death pandemic, which appeared with black rats brought by merchant ships from Asia, eventually died out as black rats were displaced by brown rats and health and hygiene improved.
Victims often develop painful swelling in the lymph nodes called buboes, flu-like symptoms and gangrene.

Although the disease is treatable with antibiotics, without treatment the mortality rate is almost two-thirds of those infected, according to the US Centres for Disease Control.

Last year, about 60 people died of plague in Madagascar – the highest number globally.

The disease is prevalent in the central highlands of Madagascar, where 200-400 confirmed cases are reported each year to the World Health Organisation. The disease first appeared in the country in 1898.
 

rynner2

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#86
And now for something... maybe not all that different, after all:

Facebook will die out ‘like the bubonic plague’
Giant social networking sites spread like an infectious disease but people are now becoming immune, researchers say
By Padraic Flanagan
12:22AM GMT 24 Jan 2014

Facebook will lose 80 per cent of users within three years before eventually dying out “like the bubonic plague”, according to US scientists.
Researchers at Princeton University say the giant social networking site has spread like an infectious disease but users are slowly becoming immune to its attractions.
They forecast that the site will be largely abandoned by 2017 after comparing the growth curve of epidemics like the plague to those of online social networks.

Facebook, which celebrates its 10th birthday on February 4, has outlasted rivals such as MySpace and Bebo but the experts claim it will lose 80 per cent of its users within the next three years.

Researchers John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler based their prediction on the number of times Facebook is typed into Google as a search term. They discovered that Facebook searches peaked in December 2012 and have begun to tail off.

"Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models," the authors report in a paper entitled ‘Epidemiological modelling of online social network dynamics’.
"Ideas are spread through communicative contact between different people who share ideas with each other”, they say, adding that users “ultimately lose interest with the idea and no longer manifest the idea, which can be thought of as the gain of 'immunity' to the idea."

Facebook is due to update investors on its latest traffic numbers at the end of the month. Its most recent figures, released in October, showed nearly 1.2 billion monthly active users.

But the company’s chief financial officer David Ebersman admitted on an earnings call with analysts that during the previous three months: “We did see a decrease in daily users, specifically among younger teens.

Web experts said that the decline in desktop traffic to Facebook may be partially explained by the fact that many people now only access the network via their mobile phones.

According to estimates, 870 million people use Facebook via their smartphones each month, which could explain the drop in Google searches. Users accessing the site no longer do so by typing the name of site into Google.

Despite the grim forecast, investors appear to be untroubled. Facebook’s share price reached record highs this month, valuing the company founded by Mark Zuckerberg at £85 billion.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/f ... lague.html
 

Cochise

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#87
Facebook'll die out the same way cowlicks and winkle-pickers died out - it's essentially a child of fashion.

A shame really, its a useful way of keeping in touch with my family and friends who are scattered around the globe.
 
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#88
Researchers John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler based their prediction on the number of times Facebook is typed into Google as a search term. They discovered that Facebook searches peaked in December 2012 and have begun to tail off...
I'm no expert - I'm not even on Facebook - but that looks like really odd logic to me.

Couldn't you could just as easily assume that there are less people Googling for Facebook because more people are now on Facebook (and therefore don't have to Google it)? They may well be right, but it's an odd assumption - certainly not as self-evident as their statement infers.

..."Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models," ...
"Ideas are spread through communicative contact between different people who share ideas with each other”, they say, adding that users “ultimately lose interest with the idea and no longer manifest the idea, which can be thought of as the gain of 'immunity' to the idea."...
Some ideas do - but to claim, or infer by omission, that this is an automatic natural process of 'ideas' per se is patently ludicrous. What the researchers actually seem to be talking about are the smaller practical manifestations which exist in the pursuit of larger ideas. And that, to my mind, is no kind of news at all. (And, a little point of order to both researchers - bubonic plague hasn't died out, it's just less popular than it used to be.)

Cochise said:
Facebook'll die out the same way cowlicks and winkle-pickers died out - it's essentially a child of fashion...
It'll certainly change, and I don't doubt that it's ubiquity will become a thing of the past (and that the process may already have started); however, as a manifestation of one of humanity's greatest drives - communication - I think it's a safe bet that if it does disappear it'll be replaced by something pretty similar.

And does this really have anything to do with the Bubonic plague?
 
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#89
Could bubonic plague strike again?
By Melissa Hogenboom
Science reporter, BBC News
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25916296

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.

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
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.
 
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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
http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26770334

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.

Continue reading the main story

Start Quote

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.

Teeth
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.
 
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