The Black Death, the deadliest epidemic in human history, is said to have recently broken out in China and Mongolia. It was only known as a disease in the Middle Ages, but the Black Death still existed in the world.
This time, let’s briefly understand the causes, symptoms, and prevention of the Black Death.
What is the Black Death?
The Black Death is an acute febrile infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It is commonly referred to as “plague,” derived from the German word “pest” and is also known as the “Black Plague.” One of its distinguishing features is the discoloration of the skin and muscles to black due to intravascular coagulation and necrosis. It predominantly occurs in Asia, Africa, and the Americas and manifests in various forms such as bubonic plague, septicemic plague, and pneumonic plague. In medieval Europe, it caused massive population losses (approximately 75 to 200 million people) and remained a significant historical catastrophe.
Origin of the Term “Black Death”
The origin of the term “Plague” comes from the Latin word ‘Pestis’. Originally, this word referred to general terms for infectious diseases and epidemics. However, during the 14th century, the epidemic described in a particular document became so intense that the term evolved into a specific noun for that disease. In Latin literature, it began to serve both as a common noun for infectious diseases and as a proper noun for a specific ailment.
As the disease progressed, it triggered disseminated intravascular coagulation throughout the body, causing widespread hemorrhaging and black necrosis in various body parts, leading to the symptom of the body turning black and decaying. This is why the names “Black Plague” or “Black Death” became prevalent. Back then, there was a Latin expression ‘Atra Mors’, where ‘Atra’ meant both ‘black’ and ‘dreadful’, implying “dreadful death”. However, Scandinavian chroniclers translated it as ‘plague’, which spread and settled in English and German-speaking regions. This situation is similar to how the modern “Red Square” in Russia is translated as “Red Square” even though “beautiful square” could also be a valid interpretation due to the dual meaning of the word “red”.
Symptoms of the Black Death
The Black Death is characterized by sudden fever, chills, and muscle aches. It is classified into bubonic plague, septicemic plague, and pneumonic plague.
Bubonic Plague: It originates from flea bites and presents with fever and pain in the lymph nodes.
Septicemic Plague: Secondary infection from bubonic plague or direct bloodstream infection leads to symptoms such as bleeding, necrosis, and low blood pressure.
Pneumonic Plague: It results from respiratory infection, causing severe symptoms like respiratory distress and failure.
Causes of the Black Death
The plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, with different modes of transmission for bubonic and pneumonic plagues. Bubonic plague is transmitted by fleas, while pneumonic plague spreads through respiratory droplets and secretions from infected individuals or animals. It is harbored by rodent species and can be transmitted to humans through flea bites.
Impact of the Black Death
The progression of the Black Death is extremely rapid after infection, with high mortality rates and contagiousness. Compared to diseases like Ebola and COVID-19, the plague is notorious for causing rapid and widespread fatalities. In the medieval period, the plague caused population decline and significant societal impacts, remaining vividly remembered as a deadly disease.
Treatment and Prevention
Though historically terrifying, we need not be overly concerned in modern times. While the disease remains dangerous, antibiotics, vaccines, and therapeutic agents like tetracycline are available for treatment. Prompt initiation of treatment upon detection is crucial. Hygiene, proper food preparation, avoiding flea bites, and immediate isolation and transportation are essential.
Prevention and Containment
Preventive measures include handwashing, careful food handling, and mask-wearing while going out. Considering the use of repellents in diverse ecosystems is crucial, especially in areas with various habitats. Since fleas are vectors, avoiding contact with rodents is pivotal.