Friday, August 19, 2011

Black Death is Still Among Us

I was watching 'The Nature of Things' last night on the CBC. The show was about the re-introduction of black footed ferrets on the Canadian prairies after 70 years of being extinct. A vigorous strychnine dumping campaign to wipe out prairie dogs killed off this cute little ferret. You can see the video on the CBC site here. What made me sit up and go 'howdy!' was the discovery, a year after the ferrets had been re-introduced into the wild in Saskatchewan, that a nearby prairie dog colony had been wiped out by bubonic plague. That's right, the Black Death is alive and stalking rodents in the Canadian west.
In case you think I am making this up, here is an article from the Toronto Star on prairie dog deaths last year. I knew there were occasional cases in other parts of the world but it is very treatable with antibiotics. It is until an antibiotic resistant variety comes along.

7 comments:

anachronist said...

You know, that's plain scary. If it hits humans and if it mutates into an antibiotic resistant kind (always a possibility) most of us are probably doomed.

Kristin said...

Not to be a pessimist, but plague has never left us although it was unknown in the Americas until 1902-ish, when it came over on a Chinese boat. We still get several cases per year here in the US.

Bubonic plague isn't the problem although that's a horrible death in and of itself. It's the pneumonic and even worse is the septicemic varieties. If antibiotics aren't given in the first 24 hours (for pneumonic), you're dead. For septicemic, you can be fine at breakfast and dead by dinner. With plain old bubonic, you've got maybe a 50/50 shot even if you're not treated.

I was just reading earlier today that maybe the Black Death wasn't caused by the plague.

The Red Witch said...

The Star article stated there were 14-15 cases in the southern US but the last human case in Canada was in 1939.
The poor little prairie dogs have no resistance to any version. My impression was that the disease didn't affect the rodents in the Middle Ages; they were simply carriers.

@You know, that's plain scary. If it hits humans and if it mutates into an antibiotic resistant kind (always a possibility) most of us are probably doomed.

But on the bright side, we are the descendants of the people who survived and may still have their resistance to the disease.

Tracy said...

But on the bright side, we are the descendants of the people who survived and may still have their resistance to the disease.
Here's hoping. Or better still, that it doesn't really kick off again.

Kristin, I read that somewhere, too, that Bubonic Plague and the Black Death may not actually be the same thing.

And what about other diseases long gone, like the Sweating Fever that killed many back in the sixteenth century, so memorably described in Wolf Hall

anachronist said...

Bubonic plague isn't the problem although that's a horrible death in and of itself. It's the pneumonic and even worse is the septicemic varieties. If antibiotics aren't given in the first 24 hours (for pneumonic), you're dead. For septicemic, you can be fine at breakfast and dead by dinner. With plain old bubonic, you've got maybe a 50/50 shot even if you're not treated.

I was just reading earlier today that maybe the Black Death wasn't caused by the plague.


I quite agree that we might think about two different diseases but the facts you quoted here still make me feel terrified. 24 hours is a very short period of time if you are infected. Most doctors won't recognize the illness and let you die.

The Red Witch said...

@Kristin, I read that somewhere, too, that Bubonic Plague and the Black Death may not actually be the same thing.

I was reading some papers on medieval plague and the version with buboes is a variation on the respiratory and more deadly version. The papers did confirm there was no reported rodent die off which seems to accompany the bubonic variety. So perhaps it was something else. A French doctor survived and did some autopsies and reported lungs full of fluid. Guy de Chauliac if you can find his book.

Tracy said...

Anachronist - in 24 hours, by the time you (or your family)realised how ill you are, and managed to get a doctor to see you, you'd probably be past being cured, unless you were very lucky.

Red Witch - thanks for the info. I'm trying to think where I read about it, but it was a few years ago.