By Rachel Jackson
Plague is one of the deadliest diseases in human history. It is caused by a bacteria that is carried by fleas that infest small mammals such as rodents. It can be easily transmitted to humans when close contact occurs. Plague outbreaks are some of the most notorious, widely studied epidemics in history with the first known outbreak dating back to 542 A.D in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). In recent years countries such as the United States, China, India, Vietnam, and Mongolia all have confirmed human plague cases and deaths. While most people can survive modern-day plague with rapid diagnosis and antibiotic treatment, those suffering in places of high prevalence and/or inability to avoid contact with the ill cannot.
The first well-documented plague-related crisis was the Plague of Justinian, which began in 542 A.D. According to ancient historians, the disease killed nearly 10,000 people per day in Constantinople, and by the time it subsided in the 700s, nearly half of Europe’s population was wiped out, which amounted in nearly 100 million deaths.
The Black Death in London
Arguably the most infamous plague outbreak was the Black Death, a name given to the multi-century pandemic that swept first through Asia and later made its way through Europe, killing nearly a third of the continent’s population at the time and making it one of the most prevalent plague outbreaks in history. It was believed to start in China around 1334, spreading along trade routes and making it into Europe via Italian ports in the late 1340s. It rapidly spread across Europe, arriving in Weymouth on the south coast of England in June/July 1348, and by November it had reached London where the death rate rose rapidly in 1348, reaching a peak in April 1349 and falling significantly by 1349.
The disease was transmitted by infected rats on board ship, and regulations of ships arriving from foreign ports were heavily enforced as an attempt to obviate transmission — however, the attempt was futile as the Black Death continued to sporadically appear every now and again for many centuries, predominantly in European cities where sanitation was not sufficient.
Other outbreaks included the Great Plague of London (1665-66), in which 70,000 people died.
In 1911, the Plague killed nearly one million people in India. Other serious outbreaks occurred in Manchuria, where the pneumonic form killed nearly 50 thousand. Plague has also occurred in South America and in certain ports in Europe, but principally those in Southern Russia. Plague has also occurred in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritius.
The cause of plague wasn’t discovered until the most recent global outbreak, which started in the Chinese province Yunnan in 1860 and didn’t officially end until 1959. Within 20 years the disease spread from southern Chinese ports throughout the world, killing nearly 100,000 individuals. The plague’s causative agent was discovered in 1894 and there were substantial improvements in the numbers of worldwide cases, but the disease is still active in Africa, Asia, and some parts of the United States and has officially been classified as a re-emerging disease. Therefore, a ‘Plague-free World’ does not seem to be attainable at any point in the near future, despite the remarkable advances that science has made in recent years.
“Prevalence of Disease: Foreign and Insular.” Public Health Reports (1896-1970) 42, no. 41 (1927): 2530-541.