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Bubonic plague

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Bubonic plague
Classification and external resources
An inguinal 'bubo' on the upper thigh of person infected with bubonic plague. Swollen lymph glands (buboes) often occur in the neck, armpit and groin (inguinal) regions of plague victims

Bubonic plague is the best-known form of the disease plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The name bubonic plague is specific for this form of the disease, which enters through the skin, and travels through the lymphatic system.

The plague was spread by fleas on rats. This method of spreading disease is called a zoonosis.

If the disease is left untreated, it kills about half its victims in three to seven days. The bubonic plague was the disease that caused the Black Death, which killed tens of millions of people in Europe, in the Middle Ages.[1]

Symptoms of this disease include coughing, fever, and black spots on the skin.

Different kinds of the same disease

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There are different kinds of Bubonic plague. The most common form of the disease is spread by a certain kind of flea, that lives on rats. Then there is an incubation period which can last from a few hours to about seven days.

Sepsis happens when the bacterium enters the blood and makes it form tiny clots.

Pneumonic plague

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This happens when the bacterium can enter the lungs. About 95% of all people with this form will die. Incubation period is only one to two days.

The abortive form

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This is the most harmless form. It will result in a small fever. After that, the victim's body produces antibodies that protect against all forms of the disease for a long time.

The first recorded epidemic was in the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), It was called the Plague of Justinian after emperor Justinian I, who was infected but survived after long treatment.[2][3] The pandemic resulted in the deaths of an estimated 25 million (6th century outbreak) to 50 million people (two centuries of recurrence).[4][5]

During the 1300s, this epidemic struck parts of Asia, North Africa, and Europe. Almost a third of the people in Europe died of it. Unlike catastrophes that pull communities together, this epidemic was so terrifying that it broke people's trust in one another. Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian writer of the time, described it: "This scourge had implanted so great a terror in the hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and in many cases wives deserted their husbands. But even worse,... fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children".[6]

Distribution of plague infected animals 1998

Local outbreaks of the plague are grouped into three plague pandemics, whereby the respective start and end dates and the assignment of some outbreaks to either pandemic are still subject to discussion.[7] The pandemics were:

Globally about 600 cases of plague are reported a year.[10] In 2017 the countries with the most cases include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, and Peru.[10]

The transmission of Y. pestis by fleas is well known.[11] Fleas are the vector. The flea gets the bacteria as they feed on an infected animal, usually a rodent. Several proteins then work to keep the bacteria in the flea's digestive tract. This is important for the survival of Y. pestis in fleas.[12]

Modern history

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In the 20th century, some countries did research on the bacteria that causes bubonic plague, in order to use it for biological warfare.

Samples of this bacteria are carefully controlled. There is much paranoia (fear) about it. Dr. Thomas C. Butler, a US expert in this organism was charged in October 2003 by the FBI with various crimes. This happened after he said he lost samples of Yersinia pestis. This is the bacteria that causes bubonic plague. The FBI did not find the samples. They do not know what happened to them.


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  1. Walker, Cameron (10 March 2004). "Bubonic plague traced to Ancient Egypt". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2 April 2009.
  2. Little, Lester K. (2007). "Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic." In: Little, Lester K. editor. (2007), Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750. Cambridge University Press. (2007). ISBN 978-0-521-84639-4 pp. 8–15
  3. McCormick, Michael (2007). "Toward a Molecular History of the Justinian Pandemic." In: Little, Lester K. editor. (2007), Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750. Cambridge University Press. (2007). ISBN 978-0-521-84639-4 pp. 290–312.
  4. Rosen, William (2007), Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe Archived 25 January 2010 at the Wayback Machine. Viking Adult; pg 3; ISBN 978-0-670-03855-8.
  5. Moorshead Magazines, Limited. "The Plague of Justinian." History Magazine 11.1 (2009): 9–12. History Reference Center
  6. The Decameron / Giovanni Boccaccio ; translated by Mark Musa & Peter Bondanella ; with an introduction by Thomas G. Bergin. ISBN 0-451-52866-2
  7. 7.0 7.1 Frandsen, Karl-Erik (2009). The Last Plague in the Baltic Region. 1709–1713. Copenhagen. p. 13. ISBN 9788763507707.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  8. 8.0 8.1 Byrne, Joseph Patrick (2012). Encyclopedia of the Black Death. Santa Barbara (CA): ABC-CLIO. p. xxi. ISBN 978-1-59884-253-1.
  9. Byrne, Joseph Patrick (2012). Encyclopedia of the Black Death. Santa Barbara (CA): ABC-CLIO. p. xxii. ISBN 978-1-59884-253-1.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Plague". World Health Organization. October 2017. Retrieved 8 November 2017.
  11. Zhou D, Han Y, Yang R (2006). "Molecular and physiological insights into plague transmission, virulence and etiology". Microbes Infect. 8 (#1): 273–284. doi:10.1016/j.micinf.2005.06.006. PMID 16182593.
  12. Hinnebusch BJ, Rudolph AE, Cherepanov P, Dixon JE, Schwan TG, Forsberg A (2002). "Role of Yersinia murine toxin in survival of Yersinia pestis in the midgut of the flea vector". Science. 296 (#5, 568): 733–735. Bibcode:2002Sci...296..733H. doi:10.1126/science.1069972. PMID 11976454. S2CID 34770234.