Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

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.

i-3a853f5fc9715258861a84e05f1a7a5b-plague map.jpg
View fullsize image

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.


  1. #1 Azkyroth
    January 21, 2008

    …do I even need to ask why the US seems to be the only developed country that has this problem? x.x

  2. #3 Tom Levenson
    January 23, 2008

    Hey Shelley — it was good to meet you at the Science Blogging conference.

    Cool and important post. What we neglect can bite us bigtim

    On the other hand — re commenter Azkyroth: the plague in this country is actually one issue where, as it happens, large wild areas and large rodent populations have a big share in the blame in the very small number of cases of the plague. In the areas where it occurs, (the western US, basicallly, not the whole lower 48, by any stretch)like Plumas County, CA, where I spent every summer growing up, the locals know you don’t handle dead critturs that you didn’t shoot yourself.

    Plague has averaged 13 cases a year in the US since 1973 or so, (CDC figures) and recently has been reported in single digits. Much as I am willing to blame just about everything — up to my snowblower breaking in the middle of the last storm — on whatever’s going on in Washington, the plague in the US ain’t that big a deal. Unless George Bush is a prarie dog,he’s in the clear on this one.

  3. #4 Tom Levenson
    January 23, 2008

    PS: we do have the devastating European plague to thank for Isaac Newton’s year and half or so of uninterrupted thinking in 1665-6, on the occasion of the last major outbreak of the black death in England. In that time he worked out problems of infinite series, went a long way towards figuring out the calculus, made his first significant advances towards a theory of gravity and did some pretty good work on light and optics as well.

    It’s hard to say how much the isolation of the plague years really mattered to Newton. He was famously a man capable of isolating himself in the midst of hubbub. But still, the fact remains; his single most creative intellectual period came during the plague years, when he was stuck in and around the small manor house you can see pictured here:

  4. #5 film izle
    September 25, 2008

    Nice article, though.

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