Could the world suffer from a new bubonic plague epidemic? If the plague mutated so that current medicines couldn’t combat it, we might see an outbreak to rival the Black Death in the 1300s.
Bubonic Plague History
The European rat-borne bubonic plague whose fleas harboured Yersinia pestis killed 350 million people in Europe between September 1348 and June 1349, shortly after the European-wide 100 Years War. These deaths represented 50% of the human population in Europe.
The Black Death received its name after the color of the buboes, or swellings, which disfigured the sick (see image below). The survivors of the European outbreak, who were immune to the plague, re-generated the current highly-successful human population in the region.
Researchers Stephanie Hansch and Barbara Bramanti discovered the route of bubonic plague infection led from Asia to Marseille by November 1347, through western France to northern France and over to England.
However, a different type of Yersinia pestis was found in the Netherlands. The researchers believe the infection in the Netherlands came from the North, indicating another infection route, from Norway to the Netherlands. ‘The history of this pandemic, is more complicated than previously thought,” Haensch stated.
Yersinia Pestis Bacteria
Yersinia bacteria have many sub-species, some of which are harmful. Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for the bubonic plague or the Black Death, and Yersinia enterocolitica, a major cause of gastroenteritis, are the most lethal sub species. The evolution of these Yersinia species is compelling.
New Bubonic Plague Forecast
Medical researchers extracted DNA from the teeth of victims of a bubonic plague pandemic that swept through the Byzantine Empire in AD 541-542; exhuming the victims from an early medieval cemetery in Bavaria, Germany. The AD 541-542 plague wiped out half the world’s population at that time.
Research links the AD 541-542 plague with the Black Death bubonic plague, which rats spread during the 14th to 17th centuries, and in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Yersina pestis bacterium caused all three pandemics, but they weren’t quite the same.
Significantly, the bacterial strains of the first pandemic are very different from those of the later pandemics so that scientists warn that the same bacteria with different DNA lineages is a cause for concern.
“These results show that rodent species worldwide represent important reservoirs for the repeated emergence of diverse lineages of Y pestis into human populations,” the researchers conclude.
The Future of the Bubonic Plague
Modern-day antibiotics halt currently known strains of plague, yet, researchers warn about potentially dangerous mutations. Should an airborne mutant version emerge, the plague could kill people within 24 hours of infection, cautioned Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University in Canada.
With the widespread presence of rodents and the continued existence of evolving strains of plague, experts believe that another outbreak of bubonic plague is possible.