The bubonic plague


  • Earlier this week health officials in Oregon, United States of America, confirmed the first case of bubonic plague in the state since 2005.
  • According to various reports available the person probably got the disease from a sick pet cat.
  • The disease was quickly detected and the person has received antibiotics for treatment.
  • The contacts of the person and the cat were also tracked down and also given the treatment.
  • The cat was also treated however did not survive.
  • Between 1346 and 1353, the bubonic plague killed as many as 50 million in Europe and which came to be known as the Black Death.

What is the bubonic plague?

  • The plague is caused by Yersinia pestis which is a zoonotic bacteria, i.e. bacteria that can spread between animals and people.
  • Yersinia pestisis usually found in small animals and their fleas.
  • According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), humans can be infected in one of three ways
  1. the bite of infected vector fleas,
  2. unprotected contact with infectious bodily fluids or contaminated materials (like bitten by an infected rat), and
  3. the inhalation of respiratory droplets/small particles from a patient with pneumonic plague.

What are the disease’s symptoms?

  • Plague symptoms can manifest in a variety of ways.
  • Bubonic plague specifically refers to the cases where bacteria gets into the lymph nodes.
  • According to the United States’ Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it can cause fever, headache, weakness and painful, swollen lymph nodes, and it usually happens from the bite of an infected flea.
  • Septicemic plague occurs if the bacteria enters the bloodstream.
  • This often follows untreated bubonic plague which causes additional, more serious symptoms.
  • These include abdominal pain, shock, bleeding into the skin, and also blackening of appendages, most often fingers, toes or the nose.
  • According to the CDC, this form comes either from flea bites or from handling of the infected animal.
  • Pneumonic plague is the most dangerous, and according to the WHO, “almost always fatal” if goes untreated.
  • As the name suggests, it happens when the bacteria enters the lungs, and adds rapidly developing pneumonia to the list of symptoms which are listed above.
  • According to the CDC, it is the only form of plague which can be spread from person to person by inhaling infectious droplets thus making it the most contagious.

What was the impact of the Black Death?

  • The Black Death was the single most deadly disease outbreak in history till the Great Influenza pandemic of the year 1918-20.
  • Taking into account the significantly lower population levels of the 14th century, the Black Death is still the most deadly outbreak of all the time, by some estimates, wiping out up to half of Europe’s population.
  • Apart from that, it also left a lasting impact on those who survived.
  • A study published in 2022 in the journal Nature found that certain genetic mutations increased survival chances by around 40 per cent due to the Plague.
  • This 40 per cent was the strongest selective fitness effect ever estimated in humans till now.
  • Unfortunately, this mutation, which has since been passed, has been directly linked to the incidence of certain autoimmune diseases which means that what happened 700 years ago might be impacting your health today.
  • The Black Death also left lasting social, economic and cultural impacts in Europe and beyond the Europe.

So, One should be worried about another Black Death?

  • Doctors do not expect the disease to spread from Oregon or cause any deaths among the humans.
  • Bubonic plague epidemics became a thing of the past by the year 1930s.
  • According to the CDC, a couple of thousand plague cases are reported worldwide each year, mostly in Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Peru.
  • Fatality is roughly around 11 per cent.
  • This is due to the fact of modern antibiotics, which are fairly capable of dealing with the danger posed by Y pestis, as well as better hygiene and understanding of the disease.
  • According to the CDC, all forms of plague are treatable with common antibiotics and also with early treatment drastically improving chances of survival.
  • Even though Y pestis can still occur almost anywhere and everywhere and can be fatal to individuals, a larger pandemic echoing the Black Death is thus pretty much impossible.

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