Plague Years

The word ‘plague’ tends to summon up images of Biblical times, or Middle Ages, as most people don’t realise that the illness, or at least the bacterial that causes it,  has never died out.  as the bug is still present in parts of Asia,  and scientists are now warning that it may come back, with devastating results.

It is now believed that the Justinian Plague of the 6th century contributed to the demise of the Roman Empire, some suggesting that it came out of Africa and was spread by trade goods. The one most of us know about was the Black Death, or Bubonic Plague of the 14th century, which was spread by fleas carried by black rats. The nursery rhyme Ring a Ring of Roses is said to refer to people developing red patches on their faces before they died. The epidemic didn’t just kill people, the lack of knowledge about its causes led to a collapse of faith in the Christian church, so probably paved the way for the Reformation, as it struck down the pious and good as often as the godless sinners. Eyam, a village in the Peak district became famous for bravely volunteering to become isolated once the infection took hold, so helping to stop its spread.

Though Daniel Defoe was too young to witness it, his book The Plague Year, provides a graphic account of the effect of the epidemic, of people going mad from the pain, with one man running round trying to kiss people to spread it in the belief that he could transfer the disease to them, hence cure himself. This idea was common when cures were sought for syphilis when it was often believed that it could be transferred to virgins, hence a lot of abuse and infection resulted. Londoners mistakenly believed that the plague was spread by dogs and cats, so killed many of them. Ironically, this led to an explosion in the rat population, so made the problem worse.

Authorities were divided as to the role of alcohol, with Puritans opting for abstinence, whilst there was a long tradition in most cultures that alcohol had curative properties, so advocated moderate consumption. Then there were the desperate poor who got drunk as much as they could, as they believed it gave pain relief, and if not, may as well die happy.

Another outbreak started in mid 19th century China and killed around 12 million people in China and India.

The bacteria, Yersinia,  that causes this is still present in some animal populations such as prairie dogs in the USA, and occasional cases appear in Asia.  When I was a medical student, there were occasional scares of strange illnesses presenting in Vietnamese refugees. With so much international trade, by air and sea, and so many people living in crowded cities and especially ports, any new outbreak could be utterly terrifying. A recent news item was of the mouse epidemic in the houses of parliament in London, with Battersea dog and cats home suggesting some of their residents could help out.

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