The plague was unbelievably deadly and disastrous in Europe during the 1300-1700s, but it is somewhat more surprising that the plague still claims a number of lives across the modern world. Even more surprising is that the number of cases has been slightly rising over the past few decades.
In the midst of my ‘Plague Blogging,’ an interesting paper was published in PLoS Medicine entitled “Plague: Past, Present, Future” which is chock full of information about the ancient, and modern plague. For example, thousands of people (even a dozen or so in the USA) still die from the plague, a bacterial infection caused by Yersinia pestis. In addition to being carried by fleas which can transmit Y. pestis via a bite, contact with infected animals can also transmit the disease (like this case I blogged about an unfortunate wildlife researcher), as well as human-human transmission called “pneumonic” plague.
Africa is at the crux of the ‘new’ plague, which made a small comeback in the 1990s. Over 90% of all plague deaths in the last five years occured in Madagascar, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The most recent large pneumonic plague outbreak, with hundreds of suspected plague cases, was in October and November 2006 in the Congo. A smaller outbreak occured in nearby Uganda in February 2007.
“Plague may not match the so-called ‘big three’ diseases (malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis) in numbers of current cases,” say the authors, “but it far exceeds them in pathogenicity and rapid spread under the right conditions.”
“It is easy to forget plague in the 21st century, seeing it as a historical curiosity. But in our opinion, plague should not be relegated to the sidelines. It remains a poorly understood threat that we cannot afford to ignore.”
The figure below shows (in red) nations where cases of the plague have occured, and if you look at the full-size image, the number of cases are plotted over the years.
Stenseth et al. 2008. Plague: Past, Present, Future. PLoS Medicine. (open access here)
Hat tip Bora for the heads-up on the paper.
Check out the rest of my posts on the plague, here, and Tara has a in-depth post up expounding on the alternative theories of the cause of the plague.