Roughly 700 years ago the Black Death devastated Medieval Europe. This outbreak of the bubonic plague killed roughly about half of the continent’s population. The bubonic plague would continue to make its presence felt periodically even up until modern times. In fact according to the World Health Organization, the pandemic of plague was only declared inactive in 1959! It seems odd that a disease associated with the medieval era could have survived into the 20th century. Indeed, the plague is still with us. However its occurrence is so rare that most people don’t even notice it.
Back in the middle ages doctors assumed the plague was spread by bad air, unburied bodies and other filth. They didn’t know it was spread by rats and was caused by an infection of Yersinia pestis bacteria. Interestingly, a plague outbreak in London may have been stopped in its tracks by the Great Fire of London in 1666; the fire having destroyed many infected rats. Perhaps this cause and effect, which pointed to vermin as the carriers, was missed in the panic of the moment. The point is diseases which we generally think of being the bane of earlier generations are still with us.
The plague still makes an appearance in the west, although no longer in civilization-destroying epidemics. The US always has a few each year. Most outbreaks occur in Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico. In 2015 there were 16 cases recorded in the US. This year has been no different with several cases already reported. Thankfully, science has outpaced this old killer. Several types of antibiotics are used to combat this illness; gentamicin, doxycycline, ciprofloxacin, and levofloxacin.
So how does the plague manage to still infect people? The disease was never wiped out entirely. It lives and is spread mainly by fleas who hitch rides on vermin like rats. Destroying an entire species of flea or rats is pretty much impossible. While we can’t fully eradicate the disease’s favored transportation vectors, we can bring it under control. Public sanitation and vermin eradication programs mean that urban areas are far cleaner and more sanitary than they were even 100 years ago. Yet the disease is much like its hosts, resilient and difficult to fully destroy.
The plague isn’t the only “old fashioned” disease that still exists. Tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, polio, and even scarlet fever still run rampant in many parts of the world. In the west these illnesses have largely been contained through medical advances like vaccines, better public sanitation, and improved personal hygiene. If you’re scared of the plague or any of these other illnesses your risk of contracting them is very low, particularly if you live in the developed world. But you can lower your already low risk by ensuring you’re up-to-date on your vaccines, practice basic hygiene, and avoid disease hot spots. It’s interesting how history, which seems so long in the past, can burst into the present and remind us that the scourges of our ancestors can still affect us today.