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“Black Death” could return, study warns

March 16, 2013
Courtesy of Elsevier Press
and World Science staff

The re­cur­ring plagues known as the “Black Death,” which dec­i­mat­ed me­di­e­val peo­ples, could re­turn in mod­ern times as drug-re­sist­ant forms of the bac­ter­ium have emerged, a study warns.

These tougher strains are raising “se­rious con­cerns,” ac­cord­ing to the stu­dy, pub­lished in the March is­sue of the jour­nal In­fec­tion, Ge­net­ics and Ev­o­lu­tion.

Plague in the House, a 16th cen­tury wood­cut by an un­known Ger­man art­ist.


The find­ings were an­nounced on March 15 as ar­chae­o­lo­gists un­earthed a “Black Death” grave in Lon­don, con­tain­ing more than a doz­en skele­tons of peo­ple sus­pected to have died from the plague. The vic­tims are thought to have died dur­ing the 14th cen­tu­ry and ar­chae­o­lo­gists an­ti­cipate find­ing many more as they ex­ca­vate the site.

The plague is a highly con­ta­gious dis­ease af­fect­ing the lungs. Popula­t­ion lev­els suf­fered glob­ally due to the plague, with around 75 mil­lion peo­ple glob­ally per­ish­ing dur­ing the 14th cen­tu­ry Black Death, ac­cord­ing to re­search­ers. The plague has re­turned ep­i­sod­ic­ally in re­cent dec­ades, al­though, thanks to mod­ern med­i­cal care, fa­tal­i­ties have not sur­passed a few doz­en in any re­cent out­break.

The new stu­dy an­a­lyzes the Great Plague of Mar­seille, which caused 100,000 deaths be­tween 1720 and 1723.

“It is quite in­struc­tive to re­vis­it the se­quence of events and de­ci­sions that led to the out­break,” wrote the au­thor, Chris­tian De­vaux of the Cen­ter for Path­o­gen­ic Agents and Health Biotech­nolo­gies in Mont­pel­lier, France.

“Although the threat was known and health sur­veil­lance ex­isted with quite ef­fec­tive pre­ven­tive meas­ures such as quaran­ti­ne, the ac­cu­mula­t­ion of small neg­li­gence led to one of the worst epi­demics in the ­city (a­bout 30 per­cent of ca­su­al­ties among the in­hab­i­tants),” he wrote. “This is an ex­cel­lent mod­el to il­lus­trate the is­sues we are fac­ing with emerg­ing and re-e­merg­ing in­fec­tious dis­eases to­day and to de­fine how to im­prove biosur­veil­lance and re­sponse to­mor­row.”

“The risk of plague dis­semina­t­ion by trans­port trade is neg­li­gi­ble be­tween de­vel­oped coun­tries,” he added, but “this risk still per­sists in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. In ad­di­tion, the emer­gence of an­ti­bi­ot­ic re­sist­ant strains of Yersinia pestis, the in­fec­tious agent of plague, is rais­ing se­ri­ous con­cerns for pub­lic health.” Ge­net­ic change has al­so made the bac­te­ria bet­ter able to live in mam­ma­li­an blood, he wrote.

In the April is­sue of the jour­nal Clin­i­cal and Ex­pe­ri­men­tal Im­mu­nol­o­gy, re­search­ers with the De­fence Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy Lab­o­r­a­to­ry, Salis­bury, U.K. note that work is un­der­way to­ward a vac­cine for plague.


* * *

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Correction: Early versions of this story incorrectly referred to the infectious agent of plague as a virus. It is a bacterium.

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The recurring plagues known as the “Black Death,” which decimated medieval peoples, could return in modern times as antibiotic-resistant forms of of the virus have emerged, a study warns. The findings were announced on March 15 as archaeologists unearthed a “Black Death” grave in London, containing more than a dozen skeletons of people suspected to have died from the plague. The victims are thought to have died during the 14th century and archaeologists anticipate finding many more as they excavate the site. The plague is a highly contagious disease affecting the lungs. Population levels suffered globally due to the plague, with around 75 million people globally perishing during the 14th century Black Death, according to researchers. The plague has returned episodically in recent decades, although, thanks for modern medical care, fatalities have not surpassed a few dozen in any recent outbreak. The study, published in the March issue of the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution, analysed the Great Plague of Marseille, which caused 100,000 deaths between 1720 and 1723. “It is quite instructive to revisit the sequence of events and decisions that led to the outbreak,” wrote the author, Christian Devaux of the Center for Pathogenic Agents and Health Biotechnologies in Montpellier, France. “Although the threat was known and health surveillance existed with quite effective preventive measures such as quarantine, the accumulation of small negligence led to one of the worst epidemics in the city (about 30% of casualties among the inhabitants),” he wrote. “This is an excellent model to illustrate the issues we are facing with emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases today and to define how to improve biosurveillance and response tomorrow.” “The risk of plague dissemination by transport trade is negligible between developed countries,” he added, but “this risk still persists in developing countries. In addition, the emergence of antibiotic resistant strains of Yersinia pestis, the infectious agent of plague, is raising serious concerns for public health.” Genetic change has also made the bacteria better able to live in mammalian blood, he wrote. In the April issue of the journal Clinical and Experimental Immunology, researchers with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Salisbury, U.K. note that work is underway toward a vaccine for plague.