While the plague may sound like it belongs in the past, it hasn’t actually gone instinct just yet. It’s an infectious disease that affects mammals, which means that it affects humans as well. It can be spread through animals, as well as through human contact.
The bacteria that causes plague can be found all over the world, including the United States. And when left untreated, it can be incredibly deadly.
Here, we will share the history of the plague, as well as its causes, symptoms and treatment. Here is everything you need to know about plague.
What Exactly is Plague?
Plague is a disease that comes from the Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis) bacteria. This type of bacteria can usually be found in small mammals like rats, as well as the fleas that nest and live on them. These infected fleas can also pass the plague bacteria onto different animals they feed on, including humans, by infecting them with the bacteria.
The Three Different Types of Plague
Bubonic Plague – The bubonic plague is the most common form of all three types. More often than not, the bubonic plagues is transferred via flea bites. When the bacteria infects the systems, it attacks the lymph nodes first, which are the small glands whose purpose is to help the body fight infections. The infected lymph nodes, which are called buboes, become swollen and tender to the touch. When left untreated, the disease can enter the bloodstream, which can then turn into septicemic plague, or it can enter the lungs, which is known as pneumonic plague.
Septicemic Plague – When the bacteria enters the bloodstream and multiplies, it is known as septicemic plague. While symptoms can occur as soon as the body is infected or symptoms can occur when the illness is left untreated. Some patients that suffer from septicemic plague end up developing black, dying skin tissue.
Pneumonic Plague – The pneumonic plague is actually the most dangerous and harmful of all three types of this illness. As the name suggests, it affects the lungs and can come on swiftly, as quick as 24 hours in fact. When an infected person coughs, they expel the bacteria into the air, which is why it is also considered the most contagious of the three types. When this type of plague does not get treated immediately, the results can be deadly, and even cause an epidemic if left untreated. This is also the only type of plague that can be spread through human interaction or person to person contact.
What Are the Origins and History of Plague
Research shows that the plague bacteria has been around for thousands of years. In fact, a study was conducted on two Bronze Age skeletons that were approximately 3,800-years in age, and researchers found traces of the plague bacteria in their DNA.
History has also proven that the Y. pestis plague bacteria was responsible for the Justinian plague, the Black Death, and the 19th century pandemic in southwest China.
The Justinian Plague
Back in the sixth-century, the Justinian plague struck Turkey, eventually spreading throughout Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East around the time of 541 C.E. and 750 C.E. In just four years, reportedly between the years of 542 C.E. and 546 C.E., this particular plague managed to take the lives of around 100 million people in Africa, Asia and Europe.
The Black Death
The Black Death happens to be the most infamous plague there ever was. It took place in the 14th century in Europe, causing the death of at least one-third of Europe’s entire population. Between the years 1347 and 1352, it was approximated that at least 25 million people died in total.
Then, over the next 400 years, there were other plague outbreaks all throughout Europe. This time, between 1656 and 1657, two-thirds of the population in Naples and Genoa died. Then once again from 1665 and 1666, but this time in London and Vienna, with each city having around 100,000 people die from the The Black Death. Then from 1770-1771 in Moscow, another 100,000 people died as well.
History has reported that The Black Death was the cause of death for over 50 million people in the continent of Europe.
The Outbreak in Southwest China
In the 19th century, around the year 1855, there was also an outbreak of the plague that took place in the Yunnan province in southwest China. Much like the Justinian Plague, this one also spread to other places including Japan, India, Australia, and North and South America between the years 1910 and 1920, mostly due to trade ships. By the time 1959 rolled around, this outbreak had killed at least 15 million people around the world.
Common Symptoms of Plague
Although all three types of the plague can show different symptoms within the human body, all three can have these symptoms in common as well: weakness, headache, diarrhea, sudden fever, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and body aches.
Symptoms of Bubonic Plague
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that someone suffering from the bubonic plague may notice these symptoms within the first two to six days after they’ve been exposed to the infectious bacteria. Symptoms of the bubonic plague are one or more tender and swollen lymph nodes, feeling of discomfort or malaise, and muscle pain. As mentioned earlier, the buboes that form from the infection tend to be painful and firm, more often appearing around the neck, armpits and groin areas. If they are left untreated, the buboes will become open and pus-filled sores, possibly developing into septicemic or pneumonic plague.
Symptoms of Pneumonic Plague
As for the pneumonic plague, symptoms can start as quickly as one day after a person has been exposed to the bacteria. These symptoms normally include difficulty breathing, cough, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, bloody or watery mucus, and pneumonia. If left untreated, this type of plague can be fatal, leading to organ failure, shock, and worse, death. Thankfully, the recovery rate from this type of plague is also quite high for as long as patients get treatment within 24 hours of the symptoms developing or appearing.
Symptoms of Septicemic Plague
The septicemic plague can be a direct result of the bubonic plague, or it can also happen independently from other plagues as well. Such symptoms of this type of plague is muscle pain, exhaustion, bleeding into the skin or the other organs, dying tissue that turns the skin black mostly on the nose, fingers and toes. If symptoms progress quickly and it’s left untreated, it can also be fatal.
It’s important to note that individuals that have any symptoms of plague should seek out medical attention immediately.
Common Causes of Plague
The most known and common cause of the plague is a human being bit by a flea that’s infected with the plague bacteria. Even individuals that have been in direct contact with infected fluids or tissues from animals that have plague are also at risk of getting infected.
Plague can also be transmitted or spread when people inhale droplets that are breathed out via people, dogs, or cats that are infected with pneumonic plague. Again, the pneumonic plague is also the only one that can be transmitted from person to person.
Treatment and Prevention of Plague
Plague can be diagnosed by taking a person’s blood, sputum, or lymph node tissue samples. It may take up to two days for a laboratory to confirm if the case is positive or negative. Doctors can actually begin treatment even before a person is positively confirmed to have plague.
The plague can be treated using antibiotics. For patients suffering from pneumonic plague, it is advisable to put them in isolation, especially when confined in the hospital, since this can be transmitted to others.
According to the CDC, while the plague can occur during any time of the year, majority of cases within the United States normally start in late spring up to early fall. Notably, it is also more common in rural areas like Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Individuals that live in high risk areas should make sure to stay away from rodents like rats, chipmunks and squirrels, and more importantly, fleas. People should also evade handling any animal carcasses in these areas as well, to avoid accidental exposure.
Is There Still Plague Today?
As reported by the CDC, the U.S. has an average of just 7 cases of plague each year, with more than 80% of the plague cases within the United States being bubonic. 50% of the plague cases are people between the ages of 12 to 45, yet it’s important to note that people of any age can be infected. According to the CDC, most cases of plague were found to be within smaller towns or villages rather than in large cities.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also shared that in the year 2017, it was such countries as Democratic Republic of the Congo, Peru and Madagascar that had the most extensive levels of plague in the world.
Illnesses Similar to Plague
There are a number of illnesses and diseases that have very similar symptoms to plague. They are the following:
- Cat Scratch Disease – also known as cat scratch fever, it can occur from a bite, scratch or lick from an infected cat
- Tularemia – this is a rare infectious disease that can be passed from small mammals t humans through their infected ticks or flies
- Elephantiasis – disease or illness that comes from parasitic worms that infect a person’s lymph system
- Dengue Virus Disease – this is a viral infection that is spread via mosquitos that can be deadly
- Brucellosis – this is an infection that occurs after an individual drinks unpasteurized milk or cheese
- Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever – this is a bacterial infection that is spread through the bite of an infected tick that can be fatal when left untreated
- Streptococcal Lymphadenitis – this is when lymph nodes become enlarged due to an infection
While the plague is much less prevalent these days than it was before, there are still a number of places within the world that people can become infected. For those living in more rural areas within the U.S., they should attempt to avoid any contact with fleas, rodents and animal carcasses.
While treating the plague with antibiotics is normally enough to treat it, it can still be fatal when left untreated or treated too late. If you or anyone you know shows symptoms of plague, be sure to seek out the proper medical attention immediately.