THE BUBONIC PLAGUETHE BUBONIC PLAGUE
Plague, was a term that was used in the
Middle Ages to describe all fatal epidemic diseases, but now it is only
applied to an infectious, contagious disease of rodents and humans. In
humans, plague occurs in three forms: bubonic plague, pneumonic plague,
and septicemic plague. The best known form is the bubonic plague and it
is named after buboes, or enlarged, inflamed lymph nodes, which are characteristics
of the plague in the groin or neck or armpit. Bubonic plague can only be
transmitted by the bite of any of numerous insects that are normally parasitic
on rodents and that seek new hosts when the original host dies. If the
plague is left untreated it is fatal in thirty to seventy five percent
of all cases. Mortality in treated cases is only five to ten percent.
The origin of the bubonic plague is unknown
but it may have started in Africa or India. Colonies of infected rats were
established in Northern India, many years ago. Some of these rodents had
infected traders on the route between the Middle East and China. After
1330 the plague had invaded China. From China it was transferred westward
by traders and Mongol armies in the 14th century. While these traders were
travelling westward they followed a more northerly route through the grasslands
of what is now Russia, establishing a vast infected rodent population there.
In 1346 the disease reached Crimea and
found its way to Europe in 1347. The outbreak in Europe was a devastating
one, which resulted in more than 25 million deaths-about twenty five percent
of the continent’s whole population. After that the plague reappeared in
many European cities until the early 18th century, when it suddenly stopped
there. No explanation has ever been given for the plague’s rapid disappearance.
The first symptoms of the bubonic plague
are headache, vomiting, nausea, aching joints and a feeling of ill health.
The lymph nodes of the groin or of the armpit or neck suddenly start to
become swollen and painful. The pulse and respiration rate of a bubonic
plague victim is increased, and the victim will become listless and exhausted.
The buboes will swell until they are approximately the size of a chicken
egg. If a case is nonfatal than the temperature will begin to fall in about
five days, and returnt to normal in about two weeks, but in fatal cases
death will probably occur within four days.
Yersinia Pestis, an infectious, round and
rod shaped agent is the cause of the Bubonic Plague. Yersina Pestis is
a bacteria, which means the cells lack the internal organization of eukaryotic
cells. These bacteria cells would contain the membrane but they would not
be able to subdivide the inside of the cell. These bacteria cells do not
have a nucleus so instead they have a nucleiod that contains genetic material.
The two types of bacteria cells are gram-negative and gram-positive. Yersina
Pestis is gram negative and that means that antibiotics are less effective
on the plague because of a lipopolysaccharide layer over their walls that
adds extra protection.
The bubonic plague has a major impact on
the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is made up of lymph nodes, lymphatic
vessels, lymphoid organs and circulating lymphocytes. Plague victims tend
to have large bumps on their bodies which are called “buboes”. These are
actually swollen lymph nodes filled with puss. The spread of the infection
causes the lymph nodes to become hard and painful.
The lymph nodes are heavily concentrated
in the neck, armpits, and groin. When a person becomes ill these areas
will begin to swell because the body needs to make a vast amount of white
blood cells to fight off whatever pathogen has entered the body.
Many preventive measures can be used to
reduce the spread of the plague (sanitation, killing of rats, prevention
in transport of rats). Individuals who contract the disease are isolated,
fed fluids and put to bed. During World War II, scientists using sulfa
drugs were able to produce cures of plague.
Since it is a bacteria, the bubonic plague
can be treated with antibiotics. Tetracyline, Streptomycin, and Chloramphenicol
are three of the antibiotics used to prevent plague. Sometimes, they are
even mixed together. The plague can almost always be cured when it is recognized
Since the late 19th century bubonic plague
vaccinations have been in use. There is a vaccine that can be taken in
a six to month installment period, but there is a element of risk to this
vaccination. This vaccination has been proven to be ineffective with people
younger than eighteen and older than sixty. The side effects of this vaccination
can sometimes result in death and therefore it is not a good idea to use
During the Middle Ages, people did not
have a clue as to why the plague was spreading so quickly. But now we know
that the bubonic plague is spread by fleas. The bacteria moves its way
up to the upper digestive tract of the flea where it breeds and multiplies.
The flea must find a new host and when it does the flea drinks its blood
and regurgitates the bacteria into the host. This also infects the host.
Therefore, the plague can be spread by any rodent or animal who could get
As soon as the bacteria is regurgitated
into the new host, it begins to multiply in lymphatic system and the blood
stream. The bacteria attacks the whole body at once by travelling to the
spleen, liver, brain, lungs and kidneys.
There is much controversy concerning the
exact method by which the plague arrived in England. But it is certain
that it arrived by the ports, carried on merchant and Naval ships. However,
it is possible that the infected fleas carried by the rats in the grain
or bales of cloth and cotton, or on the backs of the crew, passengers or
returning soldiers. Also the disease was spread from the ports to the town
and country, maybe wild rodents in the countryside, by the rats and fleas
in transported freight, or by the fleas on their human hosts.
Although the evidence is mixed and debatable,
it is suggested they all played a role. There is evidence to support that
plague was caught from baggage and bales of clothes and cloth, as in Eyam
in Derbyshire in 1665. There is also existing evidence that human transmission
is solely responsible. The spread of the plague across the country was
far too rapid to be accounted for by wild rodents in the countryside, and
it is human transport which explains its movement along the major trade
routes, usually by ship(British port to port), or on main roads and rivers.
However, it is reasonable to assume that rodent transmission played a part
in local village to village contamination.
The bubonic plague struck England in 1665.
Since, the occurrence of the plague was so unexpected only 14th century
preventive measures could be taken. The homeless people were the first
to feel the great effects of the plague. They did not have any money and
so when the plague struck them they were basically in a hopeless situation.
Even the top physicians were affected by the bubonic plague. Many doctors
had to take care of the plague victims and because the plague was contagious,
the doctors also caught it. The disease spread rapidly amongst family.
To try to prevent the outbreak of the plague
the people began to burn fires in the streets to keep the air clean. Fires
were also struck in sickrooms to destroy the clothing of deceased victims.
They were also killing cats and dogs, because they were believed to be
the cause of infection.
Most doctors, during the outbreak of the
plague were afraid to visit the patients because they did not want to risk
the chance of themselves becoming infected by the disease. Many doctors
fled the medical houses, while others were accused of killing their patients
for money, or charging outrageous fees. The doctors believed that these
accusations were based on resentment.
The doctors also thought it was the rats
tail which were the cause of the plague but they still did not have solid
preventive measures. The doctors even suggested that standing over the
latrine with an empty stomach and smelling it for hours was a good remedy
to cure the plague.