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Yersinia pestis seen at 200× magnification with a fluorescent label. This bacterium, carried and spread by fleas, is the cause of the various forms of the disease plague.
Plague is a deadly infectious disease that is caused by the enterobacteria Yersinia pestis, named after the French-Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. Primarily carried by rodents (most notably rats) and spread to humans via fleas, the disease is notorious throughout history, due to the unrivaled scale of death and devastation it brought. Until June 2007, plague was one of the three epidemic diseases specifically reportable to the World Health Organization (the two other ones were cholera and yellow fever).
Depending on lung infection, or sanitary conditions, plague also can be spread in the air, by direct contact, or by contaminated undercooked food or materials. The symptoms of plague depend on the concentrated areas of infection in each person: such as bubonic plague in lymph nodes, septicemic plague in blood vessels, pneumonic plague in lungs, and so on. It is treatable if detected early. Plague is still endemic in some parts of the world.
The epidemiological use of the term "plague" is currently applied to bacterial infections that cause buboes, although historically the medical use of the term "plague" has been applied to pandemic infections in general. Plague is often synonymous with "bubonic plague" but this describes just one of its manifestations. Other names have been used to describe this disease, such as "The Black Plague" and "The Black Death"; the latter is now used primarily by scholars to describe the second, and most devastating, pandemic of the disease.
The etymology of the word "plague" is believed to come from the Latin word plāga ("blow, wound") and plangere (“to strike, or to strike down”), cf. German Plage (“infestation”).
Transmission of Y. pestis to an uninfected individual is possible by any of the following means.
Yersinia pestis circulates in animal reservoirs, particularly in rodents, in the natural foci of infection found on all continents except Australia. The natural foci of plague are situated in a broad belt in the tropical and sub–tropical latitudes and the warmer parts of the temperate latitudes around the globe, between the parallels 55 degrees North and 40 degrees South.
Contrary to popular belief, rats did not directly start the spread of the Bubonic plague. It is mainly a disease in the fleas (Xenopsylla cheopis) that infested the rats, making the rats themselves the first victims of the plague. Infection in a human occurs when a person is bitten by a flea that has been infected by biting a rodent that itself has been infected by the bite of a flea carrying the disease. The bacteria multiply inside the flea, sticking together to form a plug that blocks its stomach and causes it to starve. The flea then bites a host and continues to feed, even though it cannot quell its hunger, and consequently the flea vomits blood tainted with the bacteria back into the bite wound. The bubonic plague bacterium then infects a new victim, and the flea eventually dies from starvation. Serious outbreaks of plague are usually started by other disease outbreaks in rodents, or a rise in the rodent population.
In 1894, two bacteriologists, Alexandre Yersin of France and Kitasato Shibasaburō of Japan, independently isolated the bacterium in Hong Kong responsible for the Third Pandemic. Though both investigators reported their findings, a series of confusing and contradictory statements by Kitasato eventually led to the acceptance of Yersin as the primary discoverer of the organism. Yersin named it Pasteurella pestis in honor of the Pasteur Institute, where he worked, but in 1967 it was moved to a new genus, renamed Yersinia pestis in honor of Yersin. Yersin also noted that rats were affected by plague not only during plague epidemics but also often preceding such epidemics in humans, and that plague was regarded by many locals as a disease of rats: villagers in China and India asserted that, when large numbers of rats were found dead, plague outbreaks soon followed.
In 1898, the French scientist Paul-Louis Simond (who had also come to China to battle the Third Pandemic) established the rat-flea vector that drives the disease. He had noted that persons who became ill did not have to be in close contact with each other to acquire the disease. In Yunnan, China, inhabitants would flee from their homes as soon as they saw dead rats, and on the island of Formosa (Taiwan), residents considered the handling of dead rats heightened the risks of developing plague. These observations led him to suspect that the flea might be an intermediary factor in the transmission of plague, since people acquired plague only if they were in contact with recently dead rats, who had died less than 24 hours before. In a now classic experiment, Simond demonstrated how a healthy rat died of plague, after infected fleas had jumped to it, from a rat which had recently died of the plague.
Since human plague is rare in most parts of the world, there is no need to vaccinate people other than those at particularly high risk of exposure. Routine vaccination is not necessary for people living in areas with enzootic plague such as the western United States. It is not indicated for most travellers to countries reporting cases, particularly if their travel is limited to urban areas with modern hotels. The CDC thus only recommends vaccination for: 1) All laboratory and field personnel who are working with Y. pestis organisms resistant to antimicrobials, 2) People engaged in aerosol experiments with Y. pestis and 3) People engaged in field operations in areas with enzootic plague where preventing exposure is not possible (such as some disaster areas).
When a flea bites a human and contaminates the wound with regurgitated blood, the plague carrying bacteria are passed into the tissue. Y. pestis can reproduce inside cells, so even if phagocytosed, they can still survive. Once in the body, the bacteria can enter the lymphatic system, which drains interstitial fluid. Plague bacteria secrete several toxins, one of which is known to cause dangerous beta-adrenergic blockade.
Y. pestis spreads through the lymphatics of the infected human until it reaches a lymph node, where it stimulates severe haemorrhagic inflammation that causes the lymph nodes to expand. The expansion of lymph nodes is the cause of the characteristic "bubo" associated with the disease.
Lymphatics ultimately drain into the bloodstream, so the plague bacteria may enter the blood and travel to almost any part of the body. In septicemic plague, bacterial endotoxins cause disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), causing tiny clots throughout the body and possibly ischaemic necrosis (tissue death due to lack of circulation/perfusion to that tissue) from the clots. DIC results in depletion of the body's clotting resources, so that it can no longer control bleeding. Consequently, there is bleeding into the skin and other organs, which can cause red and/or black patchy rash and hemoptysis/hematemesis (coughing up/ vomiting of blood). There are bumps on the skin that look somewhat like insect bites; these are usually red, and sometimes white in the center. Untreated, septicemic plague is usually fatal. Early treatment with antibiotics reduces the mortality rate to between 4 and 15 percent. People who die from this form of plague often die on the same day symptoms first appear.
The pneumonic plague infects the lungs, and with that infection comes the possibility of person-to-person transmission through respiratory droplets. The incubation period for pneumonic plague is usually between two and four days, but can be as little as a few hours. The initial symptoms of headache, weakness, and coughing with blood (hemoptysis), or vomiting blood (hematemesis), are indistinguishable from several other respiratory illnesses. Without diagnosis and treatment, the infection can be fatal in one to six days; mortality in untreated cases is approximately 100%.
This form of plague occurs when bacteria cross the blood brain barrier, leading to infectious meningitis.
There are a few other rare manifestations of plague, including asymptomatic plague and abortive plague. Cellulocutaneous plague sometimes results in infection of the skin and soft tissue, often around the bite site of a flea.
If diagnosed in time the various forms of plague are usually highly responsive to antibiotic therapy. The antibiotics often used are Streptomycin, Chloramphenicol and Tetracycline. Amongst the newer generation of antibiotics, Gentamicin and Doxycycline have proven effective in monotherapeutic treatment of plague.
The earliest account describing a possible plague epidemic is found in I Samuel 5:6 of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh). In this account, the Philistines of Ashdod were stricken with a plague for the crime of stealing the Ark of the Covenant from the Children of Israel. These events have been dated to approximately the second half of the 11th century BC. The word "tumors" is used in most English translations to describe the sores that came upon the Philistines. The Hebrew, however, can be interpreted as "swelling in the secret parts". The account indicates that the Philistine city and its political territory were stricken with a "ravaging of mice" and a plague, bringing death to a large segment of the population.
In the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC), Thucydides described an epidemic disease which was said to have begun in Ethiopia, passed through Egypt and Libya, then come to the Greek world. In the Plague of Athens, the city lost possibly one third of its population, including Pericles. Modern historians disagree on whether the plague was a critical factor in the loss of the war. Although this epidemic has long been considered an outbreak of plague, many modern scholars believe that typhus, smallpox, or measles may better fit the surviving descriptions. A recent study of DNA found in the dental pulp of plague victims suggests that typhoid was actually responsible.
In the first century AD, Rufus of Ephesus, a Greek anatomist, refers to an outbreak of plague in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. He records that Alexandrian doctors named Dioscorides and Posidonius described symptoms including acute fever, pain, agitation, and delirium. Buboes—large, hard, and non-suppurating—developed behind the knees, around the elbows, and "in the usual places." The death toll of those infected was very high. Rufus also wrote that similar buboes were reported by a Dionysius Curtus, who may have practiced medicine in Alexandria in the third century BC. If this is correct, the eastern Mediterranean world may have been familiar with bubonic plague at that early date.
The Plague of Justinian in AD 541–542 is the first known attack on record, and marks the first firmly recorded pattern of bubonic plague. This disease is thought to have originated in China. It then spread to Africa from where the huge city of Constantinople imported massive amounts of grain, mostly from Egypt, to feed its citizens. The grain ships were the source of contagion for the city, with massive public granaries nurturing the rat and flea population. At its peak the plague was killing 10,000 people in Constantinople every day and ultimately destroyed perhaps 40% of the city's inhabitants. It went on to destroy up to a quarter of the human population of the eastern Mediterranean.
In AD 588 a second major wave of plague spread through the Mediterranean into what is now France. It is estimated that the Plague of Justinian killed as many as 100 million people across the world. It caused Europe's population to drop by around 50% between 541 and 700. It also may have contributed to the success of the Arab conquests. An outbreak of it in the AD 560s was described in AD 790 as causing "swellings in the glands...in the manner of a nut or date" in the groin "and in other rather delicate places followed by an unbearable fever". While the swellings in this description have been identified by some as buboes, there is some contention as to whether the pandemic should be attributed to the bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, known in modern times.
From 1347 to 1351, the Black Death, a massive and deadly pandemic originating in China, spread along the Silk Road and swept through Asia, Europe and Africa. It may have reduced the world's population from 450 million to between 350 and 375 million. China lost around half of its population, from around 123 million to around 65 million; Europe around 1/3 of its population, from about 75 million to about 50 million; and Africa approximately 1/8 of its population, from around 80 million to 70 million (mortality rates tended to be correlated with population density so Africa, being less dense overall, had the lowest death rate). This makes the Black Death the largest death toll from any known non-viral epidemic. Although accurate statistical data does not exist, it is thought that 1.4 million died in England (1/3 of England's 4.2 million people), while an even higher percentage of Italy's population was likely wiped out. On the other hand, Northeastern Germany, Bohemia, Poland and Hungary are believed to have suffered less, and there are no estimates available for Russia or the Balkans. It is conceivable that Russia may not have been as affected due to its very cold climate and large size, hence often less close contact with the contagion.
During the 14th century, it was difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the Black Death. Many believed it was God punishing the people for their sins. Due to this theory, many began to follow the Flagellants, who inflicted pain upon themselves to absolve their bodies of sin. During the Flagellant's ceremonies, texts were read that were said to be sent by angels to earth. They told of God's and Christ's "anger with rampant impiety" and called for "reform and penance." Through the Flagellant's rituals, it was hoped that people would change their sinful behavior and cause God to call off the Black Death. 
The Black Death somewhat contributed to the destruction of the feudal system in the Middle Ages, and many of the upper classes were forced to give higher wages and more freedom to their workers willing to work on the nobles' lands because of the high death toll. The Black Death also killed many great kings and nobles, leaving issues with inheritance of land and money left to their families. In its aftermath, the Black Death may also have favoured the use of more advanced farming tools as a smaller workforce was available and plots grew larger as a result of the population loss.
The plague continued to strike parts of Europe sporadically until the 17th century, each time with reduced intensity and fatality, suggesting an increased resistance due to natural selection. Some have also argued that changes in hygiene habits and efforts to improve public health and sanitation had a significant impact on the falling rates of infection.[who?] Alternate theories which are just as well grounded in evidence include changes in rat species and rat-human ecology in Europe, to account for the rise and fall of the incidence of plague over the centuries.
In the early 20th century, following the identification by Yersin and Kitasato of the plague bacterium that caused the late 19th and early 20th century Asian bubonic plague (the Third Pandemic), most scientists and historians came to believe that the Black Death was an incidence of this plague, with a strong presence of the more contagious pneumonic and septicemic varieties increasing the pace of infection, spreading the disease deep into inland areas of the continents. It was claimed that the disease was spread mainly by black rats in Asia and that therefore there must have been black rats in north-west Europe at the time of the Black Death to spread it, although black rats are currently rare except near the Mediterranean. This led to the development of a theory that brown rats had invaded Europe, largely wiping out black rats, bringing the plagues to an end, although there is no evidence for the theory in historical records. Some historians suggest that marmots, rather than rats, were the primary carriers of the disease.
The view that the Black Death was caused by Yersinia pestis has been incorporated into medical textbooks throughout the 20th century and has become part of popular culture, as illustrated by recent books, such as John Kelly's The Great Mortality. Many modern researchers have argued that the disease was more likely to have been viral (that is, not bubonic plague), pointing to the absence of rats from some parts of Europe that were badly affected and to the conviction of people at the time that the disease was spread by direct human contact. According to the accounts of the time the black death was extremely virulent, unlike the 19th and early 20th century bubonic plague. Samuel K. Cohn has made a comprehensive attempt to rebut the bubonic plague theory. In the Encyclopedia of Population, he points to five major weaknesses in this theory:
Cohn also points out that while the identification of the disease as having buboes relies on accounts of Boccaccio and others, they described buboes, abscesses, rashes and carbuncles occurring all over the body, the neck or behind the ears. In contrast, the modern disease rarely has more than one bubo, most commonly in the groin, and is not characterised by abscesses, rashes and carbuncles.
Researchers have offered a mathematical model based on the changing demography of Europe from 1000 to 1800 AD demonstrating how plague epidemics, 1347 to 1670, could have provided the selection pressure that raised the frequency of a mutation to the level seen today that prevent HIV from entering macrophages that carry the mutation (the average frequency of this allele is 10% in European populations). It is suggested that the original single mutation appeared over 2,500 years ago and that persistent epidemics of a haemorrhagic fever struck at the early classical civilizations.
However recent research published in the open-access scientific journal PloS Pathogens in October 2010 presented conclusive evidence that two previously unknown clades (variant strains) of Y. pestis were responsible for the Black Death. A multinational team conducted new surveys that used both ancient DNA analyses and protein-specific detection to find DNA and protein signatures specific for Y. pestis in human skeletons from widely distributed mass graves in northern, central and southern Europe that were associated archaeologically with the Black Death and subsequent resurgences. The authors concluded that this research, together with prior analyses from the south of France and Germany,
The study also identified two previously unknown but related strains of Y. pestis that were associated with distinct medieval mass graves. These were found to be ancestral to modern isolates of the present-day Y. pestis strains 'Orientalis' and 'Medievalis', suggesting that these variant strains (which are now presumed to be extinct) may have entered Europe in two waves. Surveys of plague pit remains in France and England indicate that the first variant entered Europe through the port of Marseille around November 1347 and spread through France over the next two years, eventually reaching England in the spring of 1349, where it spread through the country in three successive epidemics.
However, surveys of plague pit remains from the Netherlands town of Bergen op Zoom showed evidence of a second Y. pestis genotype which differed from that found in Britain and France and this second strain is now thought to have been responsible for the pandemic that spread through the Low Countries from 1350. This discovery implies that Bergen op Zoom (and possibly other parts of the southern Netherlands) was not directly infected from England or France c. AD 1349, and the researchers have suggested that a second wave of plague infection, distinct from that which occurred in Britain and France, may have been carried to the Low Countries from Norway, the Hanseatic cities, or another site.
The Third Pandemic began in China's Yunnan province in 1855, spreading plague to all inhabited continents and ultimately killing more than 12 million people in India and China alone. Casualty patterns indicate that waves of this pandemic may have come from two different sources. The first was primarily bubonic and was carried around the world through ocean-going trade, transporting infected persons, rats, and cargoes harboring fleas. The second, more virulent strain was primarily pneumonic in character, with a strong person-to-person contagion. This strain was largely confined to Manchuria and Mongolia. Researchers during the "Third Pandemic" identified plague vectors and the plague bacterium (see above), leading in time to modern treatment methods.
Plague occurred in Russia in 1877–1889 in rural areas near the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea. Efforts in hygiene and patient isolation reduced the spread of the disease, with approximately 420 deaths in the region. Significantly, the region of Vetlianka in this area is near a population of the bobak marmot, a small rodent considered a very dangerous plague reservoir. The last significant Russian outbreak of Plague was in Siberia in 1910 after sudden demand for Marmot skins (a substitute for Sable) increased the price by 400 percent. The traditional hunters would not hunt a sick Marmot and it was taboo to eat the fat from under the arm (the axillary lymphatic gland that often harboured the plague) so outbreaks tended to be confined to single individuals. The price increase, however, attracted thousands of Chinese hunters from Manchuria who not only caught the sick animals but also ate the fat, which was considered a delicacy. The plague spread from the hunting grounds to the terminus of the Chinese Eastern Railway and then followed the track for 2,700 km. The plague lasted 7 months and killed 60,000 people.
The bubonic plague continued to circulate through different ports globally for the next fifty years; however, it was primarily found in Southeast Asia. An epidemic in Hong Kong in 1894 had particularly high death rates, 90%. As late as 1897, medical authorities in the European powers organized a conference in Venice, seeking ways to keep the plague out of Europe. Mumbai plague epidemic struck the city of Bombay (Mumbai) in 1896. The disease reached the Territory of Hawaii in December 1899, and the Board of Health's decision to initiate controlled burns of select buildings in Honolulu's Chinatown turned into an uncontrolled fire which led to the inadvertent burning of most of Chinatown on January 20, 1900. Shortly thereafter, plague reached the continental US, initiating the San Francisco plague of 1900–1904. Plague persisted in Hawaii on the outer islands of Maui and Hawaii (The Big Island) until it was finally eradicated in 1959.
Although the outbreak that began in China in 1855 is conventionally known as the Third Pandemic, (see above), it is unclear whether there have been fewer, or more, than three major outbreaks of bubonic plague. Most modern outbreaks of bubonic plague amongst humans have been preceded by a striking, high mortality amongst rats, yet this phenomenon is absent from descriptions of some earlier plagues, especially the Black Death. The buboes, or swellings in the groin, that are especially characteristic of bubonic plague, are a feature of other diseases as well.
Research done by a team of biologists from the Institute of Pasteur in Paris and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany by analyzing the DNA and proteins from plague pits was published in Oct., 2010, reported beyond doubt that all 'the three major plagues' were due to at least two previously unknown strains of Yersinia pestis and originated from China. A team of medical geneticists led by Mark Achtman of University College Cork in Ireland reconstructed a family tree of the bacterium and concluded in an online issue of Nature Genetics published on 31 Oct., 2010 that all three of the great waves of plague originated from China. Europe’s Plagues Came From China, Study Finds.
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Plague has a long history as a biological weapon. Historical accounts from ancient China and medieval Europe detail the use of infected animal carcasses, such as cows or horses, and human carcasses, by the Xiongnu/Huns, Mongols, Turks, and other groups, to contaminate enemy water supplies. Han Dynasty General Huo Qubing is recorded to have died of such a contamination while engaging in warfare against the Xiongnu. Plague victims were also reported to have been tossed by catapult into cities under siege.
In 1347, the Genoese possession of Caffa, a great trade emporium on the Crimean peninsula, came under siege by an army of Mongol warriors of the Golden Horde under the command of Janibeg. After a protracted siege during which the Mongol army was reportedly withering from the disease, they decided to use the infected corpses as a biological weapon. The corpses were catapulted over the city walls, infecting the inhabitants. The Genoese traders fled, transferring the plague (Black Death) via their ships into the south of Europe, whence it rapidly spread.
During World War II, the Japanese Army developed weaponised plague, based on the breeding and release of large numbers of fleas. During the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, Unit 731 deliberately infected Chinese, Korean, and Manchurian civilians and prisoners of war with the plague bacterium. These subjects, termed "maruta", or "logs", were then studied by dissection, others by vivisection while still conscious. Members of the unit such as Shiro Ishii were exonerated from the Tokyo tribunal by Douglas MacArthur but 12 of them were prosecuted in the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials in 1949 during which some admitted having spread Bubonic plague within a 36-km radius around the city of Changde.
Ishii innovated bombs containing live mice and fleas, with very small explosive loads, to deliver the weaponized microbes, overcoming the problem of the explosive killing the infected animal and insect by the use of a ceramic, rather than metal, casing for the warhead. While no records survive of the actual usage of the ceramic shells, prototypes exist and are believed to have been used in experiments during WWII.
After World War II, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed means of weaponising pneumonic plague. Experiments included various delivery methods, vacuum drying, sizing the bacterium, developing strains resistant to antibiotics, combining the bacterium with other diseases (such as diphtheria), and genetic engineering. Scientists who worked in USSR bio-weapons programs have stated that the Soviet effort was formidable and that large stocks of weaponised plague bacteria were produced. Information on many of the Soviet projects is largely unavailable. Aerosolized pneumonic plague remains the most significant threat. The plague can be easily treated with antibiotics, thus a widespread epidemic is highly unlikely in developed countries.
A combination of heavy monsoon rain and clogged sewers led to massive flooding which resulted in unhygienic conditions and a number of uncleared animal carcasses. It is believed that this situation precipitated the epidemic. There was widespread fear that the flood of refugees might spread the epidemic to other parts of India and the world, but that scenario was averted, probably as a result of effective public health response mounted by the Indian health authorities.
Initial questions about whether it was an epidemic of plague arose because the Indian health authorities were unable to culture Yersinia pestis, but this could have been due to poor laboratory procedures. Yet, there are several lines of evidence strongly suggesting that it was a plague epidemic: blood tests for Yersinia were positive, a number of individuals showed antibodies against Yersinia and the clinical symptoms displayed by the affected were all consistent with the disease being plague.
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