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Simply scientific: The plague

by Martin Payette December 3, 2019
Simply scientific: The plague

“The one from ancient times?” my friend asked across the table. “Why write about that?”

Because, old friend, the plague lives. It never left.

Only three weeks ago, a hunter from China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region north of Beijing caught and ate an infected rabbit, and also caught the bubonic plague.

A week later, in the same region but in unrelated circumstances, two people were diagnosed with the pneumonic plague.

The plague has a long and terrible history of killing people and rodents. It has killed 10s to 100s of millions of people over three pandemics. Estimates say that up to 50 million people may have died from the plague over a seven-year period nicknamed the Black Death in the 1300s.

So … should we be worried today?

Meh. Maybe.

An average of seven people a year are infected in the southwest of the United States according to the Center for Disease Control. And the Canadian government says that the first and only case up here was in 1939.

And apparently, it’s easily treatable with antibiotics if diagnosed early on, according to the World Health Organization.

That said, the two main forms, bubonic and pneumonic, are pretty nasty.

You catch the former from an infected flea or louse or by eating raw, infected meat. Bacteria in infected fleas create a biofilm that blocks food intake. When the fleas bite you, they regurgitate your own blood back into you with plague bacteria. Over a few days, you develop swollen, pus-filled lymph nodes before you start vomiting blood and developing gangrenous extremities. People can survive this form without treatment, but lowkey, I don’t think that’s recommended.

You catch pneumonic plague like you catch a cold, through droplets in the air. It’s 100 per cent fatal if you don’t get treatment within the first day. As the saying goes, “If you’re coughing up blood … go to the doctor.”

So it’s probably wise to check beforehand if plague bacteria are present in rodent populations in a region your visiting.

Anyway, the plague has been in the news recently, which might have worried some. From 2010 to 2015, an average of 100 people a year around the world died from the plague, and that’s awful.

But it’s not Black-Death-horrible, which is something.


Graphic by @sundaeghost

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