The discovery of the London 14th century plague pits has triggered an interesting debate amongst scientists and historians: could the plague ever re-emerge on a similar level in the twenty-first century?
The news that archaeologists had unearthed a 'Black Death' grave in London, containing more than a dozen skeletons of people suspected to have died from the plague, made the global headlines last week (such as the Guardian “Builders unearth Medieval plague victims in City of London square”).
During the time of the ‘Black Death’, in the fourteenth century, around 75 million people globally perished. The Bubonic plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. It is what is known as a zoonotic disease because it can be transferred between different species. The main association is with small rodents and their fleas. The disease affects the lungs and is highly contagious, leading to mass outbreaks across populations. Without treatment, the bubonic plague kills about two thirds of infected humans within 4 days.
Other major plague events have occurred around the world over the past centuries. Late last year an archaeological discovery of the last remnants of a “lazaretto” or “lazaret” was made in the city of Marseille. This was a place equipped with an infirmary and destined to isolate ship passengers quarantined for health reasons. It was a major site of a plague outbreak.
One debate that has arisen from the find is whether the major plague pandemics stand as historic events or whether they could ever re-occur?
The argument that the plague could re-emerge on a large scale has been made in an article published in the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution. In the article, based on the research brief, the researchers have analyzed the Great Plague of Marseille, which caused 100,000 deaths between 1720 and 1723. The researchers aimed to highlight issues we are facing with infectious diseases today, to identify the best ways to respond to epidemics and whether we are still at risk of the plague re-emerging again.
The results of the analysis show that a number of factors show populations are still at risk of plague today. This is due to several reasons including transport and trade, and threats in developing countries where multi-drug resistant pathogens are currently emerging and spreading rapidly.