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Bubonic plague didn't cause the Black Death

01:00 Mon 22nd Apr 2002 |

A.No. The Black Death - the pandemic that killed more than a quarter of the population of 14th-Century Europe, was not bubonic plague, according to new research from America. < xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

It was previously thought to have been spread by fleas from rats infected with the plague.

Q.Why the change of view

A.Scientists at Pennsylvania State University have studied English church records - and discovered that the Black Death was too infectious and deadly to have been bubonic plague, even though symptoms were similar.

Put in a nutshell, too many people died for it to have been the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis. And it moved too speedily from person to person.

The team looked especially at bishops' records of the replacement of priests in a number of dioceses. The show clearly that an amazingly high number of priests died during the epidemic period of 1349 to 1350.

James Wood, who led the study, told the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Buffalo, New York: 'This disease appears to spread too rapidly among humans to be something that must first be established in wild rodent populations, like bubonic plague. An analysis of the priests' monthly mortality rates during the epidemic shows a 45-fold greater risk of death than during normal times, a level of mortality far higher than usually associated with bubonic plague.'

Q.Why was it put down to bubonic plague

A. The 19th-Century bacteriologists considered the evidence - red bruising on the skin, high fever, and swollen lymph nodes or buboes in the armpits and groin - pointed to the plague.

Rebecca Ferrell, who took part in the study, said: 'The symptoms of the Black Death included high fevers, fetid breath, coughing, vomiting of blood and foul body odour. Many of these do appear in bubonic plague, but they can appear in many other diseases as well.'

Black Death also spread quickly along roads and rivers, which is unlikely if it were a rodent-borne illness. There was no evidence that the streets wee filled with dead rats - another sign of the bubonic plague.

Q.So what was the Black Death, then

A.The team doesn't know yet, but hope further research will be able to reveal the pathogen responsible. At the moment, they're working on the theory that it could have been a haemorrhagic fever similar to the Ebola or Marburg virus, anthrax, or a relative of the Yersinia pestis organism that has since become extinct. It would have been spread from one person to another

Q.Does the plague still exist

A.Occasionally, in the Indian subcontinent, Africa, South America and the Far East. Usually, the plague bacteria invade the body and cause fever and lymph nodes to swell up.

Plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics. Left untreated, it kills in 90% or more of cases. The last outbreak in Britain was in 1918.

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Steve Cunningham

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