UW-Madison ENTOM 201 - Historical Accounts of the Plague

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201.15.10 Historical accounts of the plague The first, detailed accounts of the plague are graphically illustrated in the Bible in plagues 5 and 6. It goes without saying that the countries around the Mediterranean were quite aware of the plague and its consequences. The ancient Greeks reported several waves of plague. China was also well aware of the disease. The first world-wide plague occurred during the rise of the Byzantine Empire. Approximately 10,000 deaths a day were reported and over 100 million people eventually died from the disease. Considering the Human population at that time, the loss is exceedingly high. Second plague pandemic The second pandemic and its reverberations are still felt today. The current thinking suggests that the plague began in China in the 1320s. It spread to S.E. Asia and into the Middle East by the 1340s. Second plague pandemic It was thought that the plague in Europe stemmed from events on the Black Sea. In1346 Italian merchants were besieged in Kaffa, a trading town in Crimea. Crimea -1346 The Tartars laid siege to the town but had to bring the siege to a close because they had become infected with the plague pathogen. As a parting gesture, they loaded their dead comrades onto the catapults and flung the contaminated corpses into the city. It wasn’t long before the people became ill. Merchants who had money to leave, left in a hurry and unknowingly brought the disease back to Genoa and Venice. Population of medieval and modern England In 1348, the disease came to England and within three years had killed half the population. This image shows the terrible loss of life during that period. It is estimated that about a quarter Europe was lost to the plague during the first sweep of 1346-1351. Social upheaval Winston Churchill claims that the plagues spelled the end of the feudal system in England. The system had begun to die but with so many deaths, there was a premium for those who worked the land. Moreover, with so many deaths, wealth was redistributed so that a middle class began to appear. The social upheaval that came with the accumulated wealth led to a series of mini-civil wars in England that saw the aristocracy lose their grip. Commerce began to wane. Roads and bridges fell into disrepair. Like any event that cannot be readily explained, there were scapegoats and by the time the plague reached central Europe, the Jews were cast as the villains who were spreading the disease. Never mind the fact that they were dying just like the Christians.Triumph of Death The memories of the plague hit deep into the psyche of the Europeans. For example, here is a part of a Bruegel painting of 1562 depicting the Triumph of Death showing the dark side of the plague and all it conjured up. Ring around the rosies We are even left with the plague’s legacy in our children’s poems. This little ditty comes from the plague in England. English and world plague epidemics.. The plague returned four more times during the 1300s and reappeared sporadically during the next several centuries. For example, in 1563 20,000 died in London which represented about 12% of the population at that point. In 1603 another plague hit London and 30,000 died. One bad week in London In 1665 another plague hit London and nearly 100,000 died during that year. The last plague killed about 20% of the population. This image is from a newspaper of the era and is one of the first to quantify the extent of the plague in London. It was a particularly bad week in September, 1665. Plague doctor It must have been terribly frightening to live through an epidemic without any evidence-based medical intervention. For example, this image shows a plague doctor clothed in a 16th hazmat suit. The beak contained scents or flowers to avoid breathing the stench of the dead. The eyes were made of crystal. The lance in his hand is for piercing bubos. Looking at it from 500 years later, it probably kept the wearer reasonably safe from the disease. Quarantine laws – 1665 One practice in desperate times was to quarantine whole families in their house. As this image shows, once a person became ill with the plague, the doors were nailed shut for a month. Nobody could enter or leave, and no contact with the outside. Plague pendant There were hints that fleas may have been the cause of the disease during the seventeenth century. Many people in Europe wore a carved ivory capsule that contained a small piece of cloth soaked in blood. The idea was to attract the fleas to the blood in the capsule and trap them. Plague prevention In Russia, a similar device was used but in this case, powdered chrysanthemum was placed inside. This was used to drive the fleas away rather than attract them. Interestingly, powdered chrysanthemum contains a natural insecticide/repellant so the pendant is a forerunner of our insect repellants. Some put magical incantations in the pendant such as abracadabra and algorithms of the word.Last plague pandemic Least you think that the plague is a thing of the past; we had our last pandemic in 1890. The focus or starting place of the Plague this time was in eastern Asia. It moved to Guanzhou and then to Hong Kong and then by sea to India in 1903. At the height of the problem there were 1 million people dying a year and this pandemic left 10 million dead in India alone. It’s estimated that including China and other parts of the world, over 100 million died. It was during the last plague that the hosting vectors were finally determined. With this understanding, that epidemic, and subsequent epidemics, were finally eradicated. Last major outbreak The last major outbreak in the U.S. occurred in 1924. This image shows a crew of pest control operators posing in front of their vehicle. They were spreading rat control agents. Why as the plague disappeared? Plague has been on the wane since 1910 when the rat-flea connection was made. Given its repeated appearance throughout history, epidemiologist have questioned why there have been no major outbreaks for better than a century. It may be that we have better health care and surveillance systems. There is no question that our living conditions have improved so that chances of pandemics are lessened. One theory suggests the pathogen has evolved to become less virulent. The rural rodent population has now been isolated from the urban population and the transfer is

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