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Bubonic Plague and How It Could Have Possibly Been Prevented

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Bubonic Plague and How It Could Have Possibly Been Prevented
The Invisible Killer

The Black Death is sometimes thought of as the worst and most devastating disease that has ever beset mankind. The plague, another name for this unforgettable catastrophe of the human race, is even used as a cliché in daily life. This momentous disease took place in medieval England, and was one of the worst natural disasters in history. Although, at the time, it may not have been known how it was being brought over, it could have been dealt with more effectively. Fewer people would have died, if more effective measures had been taken.

The outbreak location of the Black Death has numerous possibilities. The first recorded occurrence was in the early 1300s when it swept through China, cutting its population in half (Daniels, Hylslop 24). The Black Death probably struck earlier in Asia or Africa centuries earlier, but left no record of its casualties or detailed information (Blainey 191). From the records that are known, it was brought to China no earlier than 1331 (McNeill 175). After the plague arrived in China, it must have traveled the caravan routes of Asia during the next fifteen years (McNeill 175). This is how the infectious disease began to establish itself.

The plague traveled quickly, and spread at an inconceivable rate. Rats from China, carrying infected fleas, traveled overseas through the Middle East to Sicily in 1347 (Daniels, Hylslop 24). As these caravans traveled far and wide and came in contact with more men and more animals, the disease continued to spread more and more rapidly (McNeill 175). Sometimes when ships would arrive in Sicily that had carried the plague, many men on the ship had already died ("Bubonic"). During the winter when the disease was brought over, it seemed to disappear, but that was only because the fleas that were transferring the disease from person to person were "dormant" ("Bubonic"). After the plague's first major attack, it did not disappear. In fact, it came back at irregular intervals with different levels of severity (McNeill 179). For the next four centuries, every seventeen to twenty-five years, the plague of the Black Death reappeared, usually in urban areas where rats' population was higher ("Black Death"). The plague's uncertain way of spreading made it all the more frightening and dangerous.

By 1348, the plague was starting to settle in and do some damage. In January the plague reached Marsville in France and Tunis in Africa ("Bubonic"). During the same time, the disease spread through Italy and into France, Germany, and surrounding areas. By 1349 it had reached England and Ireland. The victims of this dreadful disease died within days (Daniels, Hylsop 24). When the end of 1349 had come, the plague had gone as far as Norway, Scotland, Prussia, Iceland, and Italy. In 1351, the infection had spread to include Russia ("Bubonic"). The well-traveled plague soon came to be known by all.

The plague can be carried by many animals, but is only actually infected by one animal. The disease infects rats, and then fleas catch it from them. The fleas then pass it on to the men ("Black Death"). "The lethal effect of the plague may not have been enhanced by the fact that it was propagated not solely by flea bites, but from person to person" (McNeill 177). The way that it was passed from human to human was a "result of inhaling droplets carrying bacilli that had been put into circulation by coughing or sneezing on the part of an infected individual" (McNeill 177). During that time, there were atypical things that were happening in Europe. It was known that housecats did a great deal of spreading the disease. What would happen is the cats would come inside because of the exhaustion that the plague causes, and the owners would take care of their cats and catch the sickness ("famine"). All of the ways that the Black Death was spread, came together to create a devastating effect.

Some possible explanations for the root of the Black Death were being studied at the time by science experts. The true cause of the plague was discovered by a Swiss scientist by the name of Alexander Yersin. It is actually caused by the bactillus Yersinia pestis, which is named after Alexander, who was the first to isolate the organism ("Bubonic"). Once the human body is infected, it is quickly overcome by the disease. The bacterium forms a waxy coating over itself and makes it resistant to antibody white blood cells. After that, the bacteria produces, and then releases, toxins that can agitate and affect the normal functioning of the circulatory system ("Bubonic"). The victim's lymph nodes swelled and received well known "buboes," or lumps, and the color of their skin turned black (Daniels, Hylslop 24). In a short period of time, there is a lot of damage that can be done to the body, and when this happens throughout a continent, society as a whole can be greatly affected. The discovery of the origin of the disease helped the people of the time because it gave them clues on how to treat it.

Overall, the European population suffered a great loss, due to the Black Death. The most common type of plague was the bubonic plague. It is cause by microbes that enter the body. About 20% of victims caught another type of the plague called the pneumonic plague, which can be spread easily to those nearby with coughing or sneezing. The third type of plague is septemic. It is spread by direct bodily fluid contact. It is the least common type and occurs when the bacteria is present in the bloodstream ("Bubonic"). All types of the plague were greatly feared and considered dangerous.

Many symptoms, or signs, can signify the Black Death. Some of the first symptoms can include fever and swelling of the lymph nodes that drain the flea bite- usually the groin or the armpit. These lumps cause excruciating pain ("Bubonic"). Other symptoms shown were a headache, high temperature, and lump on the skin the size of an egg or small orange (Blainey 191-192). Strangely, though, those victims who had large lumps were more likely to survive (Blainey 192). The bubonic form of plague can cause red spots on the skin but then they turn black ("Bubonic"). Most that died from the bubonic plague were almost certain to die within six days of the start of their symptoms (Blainey 191). Some others died of respiratory failure, which took about two weeks. Although many physical symptoms occurred, some with different severity, they were all very ill-fated to get because they often had a bad result.

Many people during the time of the Black Death were killed and it is almost inconceivable what a toll it took on Europe. The mortality rate for the plague when treated was between ten and fifteen percent. When untreated, the mortality rate was approximately fifty percent. Throughout this whole "epidemic," about one third of Europe's whole population died ("Bubonic"). That was a staggering twenty to thirty million people (Daniels, Hylslop 132). Entire villages at a time were sometimes wiped out and bodies were piled in the streets, and animals wandered freely (Daniels, Hylslop 24). Constantinople, a city that was hit hard with the disease, at its peak, had an estimated ten thousand people die each day (McNeill 141). Sometimes the disease would return to places that it had already struck. Some were immune to its effects, but the newly born would die, and they mostly consisted of the deaths (McNeill 180). The plague continued to come back every spring and attack again and again. After just five years, twenty-five million people died ("Bubonic"). This staggering number expresses what just what a mere virus can do.

Some medicine became available, although the main damage was done. Before antibiotics were available, the mortality rate of those affected by the bubonic plague was between sixty and seventy percent (McNeill 180). Infection of the lungs was transferred person to person and were one hundred percent lethal in Manchuria in 1921, "and since this is the only time that modern medical men have been able to observe plague communicated in this manner, it's tempting to assume a similar mortality rate for pneumonic plague in fourteenth century Europe" (McNeill 177, 179). Not only civilians died during this devastation. In Avignon, nine bishops were killed, and King Alfonso XI of Castile died ("Famine"). In that day in age in Europe, most everybody knew someone who had been taken by the plague. Medicine was used when it was available, but Europe felt its harsh effects nevertheless.

Different methods to stop the plague were used throughout the 1300s. To effectively control the spread of infection, early identification was vital. Tetracycline, for example, can be used to treat those who come in close contact with plaque victims. Other medicines that must be given with early symptoms were streptomycin and chloramphenichol. The vaccine that was given was to be taken three times in an initial six month period and repeated every six months as needed. These treatments should have been done to people in the area affected routinely and repeatedly. Without these important therapies, the severity grows fast and leads to death in 70% of the cases. If the medicines were distributed even to half the victims of the plague, the number of deaths would have greatly decreased. Less people would have caught the disease also if the number treated rose. The bubonic plague was able to be treated with the vaccines available, but it was not as sufficient against the pneumonic form. If treated early enough, even pneumonic plague can be stopped. What was tough was penicillin and other related drugs were ineffective against the plagues bacteria ("Bubonic"). If shipments had been made more frequently, the unfortunate outcomes of the plague could have been greatly relieved.

Different methods were thought to be affective against the Black Death. Many tried their own remedies that were rumored to work. People tried to protect themselves by carrying little bags filled with crushed herbs or flowers over their noses, but it did little. The plague continued with its normal social destruction for centuries after, coming on and off, and didn't disappear until the 1600s ("bubonic").

During the Black Death, daily life in Europe had reached an all time low. The disease killed off a good portion of city dwellers and this took centuries to repair (McNeill 141). Some of the small communities of the time suffered total extinction, and peculiarly, some seemed to have escaped entirely (McNeill 177). Because normal society was disrupted, peasant revolts began to break out in England, France, Belgium, and Italy. Writing about the times, Boccaccio, an Italian writer, once said that victims often, "ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise" ("bubonic"). Paintings and other art forms began to have suffering as a common theme. The society's whole attitude on life had changed because of the plague and Europe's social structure even began to be disturbed.

Economics began to become a problem during the medieval age. After the Black Death, English expansion didn't begin again until the 16th century under Elizabeth (McNeill 156). Because of the plague, 30 universities disappeared and educational standards dropped to incredibly low levels. The work force also had its own problems. Death among workers lead to the demand of higher pay, but the landlords refused to meet those demands ("Bubonic"). Construction projects began to fall apart and be abandoned, important machinery broke, and other evident economic problems took place ("Famine"). The plague not only affected its own period, but also affected the Renaissance period. It changed life forever (Zeldin 342).

The Black Death is a great example of what can happen when an unfamiliar infection attacks a population, is left almost untreated, is improperly taken care of, and surprises the human race. With better preparation and use of medicine, the effect could have been significantly lessened. When it came back time and time again, it still did a great deal of damage. If resources that were available had been used more effectively, the outcome would have been different. It will continue to be one of the most remembered disasters of human history and will never be forgotten.

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