Bubonic plague is a bacteria that can infect animals or humans. It can transfer directly from animals to humans when an active infection occurs. Although it is highly treatable today with modern medicine, it is still a serious infection. It is rare today, with just 5 cases of bubonic plague reported in 2014 by US health facilities, but is famous for the three pandemics that it caused in centuries past. It is believed that all of the plagues originated in China and then spread outward to the rest of the world. Here are some of the most important facts about the bubonic plague to explore today.
1. A 3 year epidemic in Europe killed millions.
The legend of the Grim Reaper began to appear in the late 14th century because of how deadly bubonic plague was between 1348-1351. Up to 2 out of 3 Europeans living at the time were killed by this bacterial infection. The total number of people will never be known for sure because not every community kept records, but it is estimated that up to 200 million people could have died from what became known as the “Pestilence.”
2. The same bacteria that causes bubonic plague causes two other plagues.
There are actually 3 different types of plague that are caused by the same bacteria. Pneumonic plague and septicemic plague are also possible. Pneumonic plague happens when the bacteria reaches the lungs and it can be spread through the air just be by breathing. Septicemic plague happens when the bacteria multiplies within the blood. This version doesn’t spread.
3. Early recognition and treatment is essential.
The best chance to recover from the bubonic plague is to have antibiotics administered within the first 24 hours of symptoms. Shortness of breath, coughing, chest pain, and blood in the saliva or mucus membranes may occur. The lymph nodes will also swell enormously, especially around the groin, and look like a huge blister. What made the Second Plague in the 14th century so widespread is that many doctors felt like these nodes needed to be burst, which spread the bacteria through the air and caused the disease to spread.
4. It needs a dark, moist environment in order to thrive.
The bacteria that causes the bubonic plague cannot survive for long in direct sunlight or in dry conditions. Despite this fact, however, it does have the potential of living for up to 60 minutes after being released into the air. It can be even longer depending on the variable conditions that may exist.
5. Bubonic plague can still be found everywhere in the world today.
Although infections are relatively rare, with only several thousand reported on a global perspective, this bacteria can still infect someone. It is found within rodents and any fleas that may be living on them. If close contact with rodents is expected, then a close-fitting surgical mask can help to protect against infection because it stops the bacteria from being breathed in. From a US perspective, the western states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado are the most likely to see a bubonic plague infection.
6. The incubation time for the bacteria can be incredibly short.
For bubonic plague, it may take up to 8 days for symptoms to finally develop. If the bacteria infects the lungs, the incubation period may be as little as 24 hours. For this reason, any recent flea bites or exposure to rodents like rats, rabbits, and squirrels should be documented. Cats who have become infected can also cause scratches that can transmit the disease.
7. Without treatment, bubonic plague has a 50/50 survival rate.
The problem with this bacteria is that it can transition into the lungs or the blood and cause multiple plague infections at the same time. If the infection just affects the lymph nodes, then there is a 50/50 survival chance if no treatments are received. If the plague spreads to the lungs and treatment isn’t received, then it is nearly 100% fatal. This is why anyone should speak with their doctor if they’ve been exposed to rodents in a high risk infection area.
8. The US doesn’t have a vaccine against bubonic plague.
Bubonic plague is one of the few bacterial infections that doesn’t have a viable vaccine available for it in the United States. Routine vaccination is not recommended for most individuals, even in high risk areas, and it typically only given to those who are working with the bacteria to study it. Because infections are so rare, the effectiveness of this vaccine have never really been studied.
9. Bubonic plague is one of the first known diseases that was used for biological warfare.
There are records of battles that happened in the 14th century where armies would use a catapult to deliver diseased bodies over city walls. This would spread the disease to the healthy population and make the city easier to conquer. This act is one of the first known instances of biological warfare. The Japanese also dropped contaminated fleas carrying plague on population centers in 1940-1941 to cause epidemic outbreaks.
10. A 200 year plague?
There is also a pandemic that is documented in early human history, occurring around the year 540. Sometimes referred to as the Justinian Plague, it may have killed up to 10,000 people per day in Constantinople, which today we know as Istanbul. It may have also killed up to half of all Europeans at the time before it eventually disappeared in the 8th century.
11. There are no natural treatments that can help stop bubonic plague.
Alternative medicine and traditional treatments do not help to cure a bubonic plague infection. It must be treated with antibiotics. Because it can also spread quickly, especially in crowded environments, anyone who may have been exposed to someone who has been infected with the plague will also be given a 7 day antibiotic series as a preventative measure.
12. It also became a religious tool.
In the Middle Ages, the 3 Abrahamic religions were constantly battling each other for supremacy. It was not unusual for one religious group to poison the drinking water of a community so that it could kill those with different beliefs. Sometimes they even did this knowing that they would be exposing themselves to the disease. It was said that God would favor those that he preferred.
13. The poor were the greatest victims.
Royalty didn’t escape the plague, but only one ruling monarch was actually killed by the disease: King Alfonso XI.
The bubonic plague is a serious disease that requires immediate treatment. Although most of the cases that are documented today come from Africa, it is a global disease that we must know more about in order to fight it. That’s why these important facts about the bubonic plague are so important to know.