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The Black Death is here to stay

By Peter Curson - posted Friday, 17 July 2020

While our world is currently consumed by the coronavirus threat who ever thinks about Bubonic Plague or the Black Death? Plague is an infectious disease that has played a critical role in our world's history. The word Plague also continues to conjure up basic fears and dreads and in many ways is related to the fear we continue to have about infectious disease and contagion.

Many people, however, continue to believe that Bubonic Plague is a thing of the past and that we have nothing to fear. But the truth is that Bubonic Plague has never disappeared and is here to stay. In addition, believe it or not, Bubonic Plague is today more geographically widespread in our world than at any time in the previous 1000 years and continues to be a threat to humans.

Historically Plague has killed hundreds of millions of people and there have been a large number of Plague pandemics over the last 700 years the last of which spread out of Asia in the late 19th century and infected parts of Australia in the period 1900-1925.


Plague outbreaks have left an indelible imprint on our world even though we now consider them to be part of an earlier age.

The Justinian Plague in the 6th and 8th centuries quickly spread across Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe and killed millions of people. The Black Death in the 14th century wrecked total havoc on Europe causing tens of millions of deaths wiping out one third of West Europe's population and reshaping the continent. In the 17th century plague returned to Europe with major outbreaks in France between 1647 and 1649, London in 1665 when 10 percent of the city's population caught the disease, Holland in the 1660s and Vienna in 1679.

The last major Plague pandemic originated in the Yunnan province in south-west China in the 1880s and spread to Hong Kong from where it was carried by ships around the world. By 1900 had spread to many parts of the world infecting North and South Africa, the USA, Honolulu, South America and Portugal as well as Australia. In Australia 1400 people caught plague between 1900 and 1925 and 535 died from the disease.

After this pandemic ran its course people believed that Plague had had its day and that the advent of a Plague vaccine and antibiotic drugs spelt the end of our worries. Plague was then largely forgotten and placed on the lowest rungs of infectious disease risk.

But the truth is that Plague has never disappeared and remains a critical issue for our world today. From the 1980s our world has seen a steep upward trend in the number of plague cases particularly in Africa.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Madagascar have experienced Plague outbreaks in virtually every year over the last three decades. Between 1954 and 2019 the world has seen more than 100,000 cases of Plague and more than 9,000 deaths. Today there are a few thousand cases of Plague reported every year with a death rate between 5 and 15 percent and important epidemics continue in parts of Africa and Asia.


Plague is a zoonotic bacterial infection well adapted to surviving in permanent natural reservoirs with its animal hosts. Over 200 species of ground-living rodents have been found to support the disease. In such an environment the Plague bacillus has adapted perfectly to its host's life style, hibernating when the animal hibernates only to revive with the animal in Spring. Some of its host animals do not catch the infection, others do in a minor way and rarely an epizootic occurs and it is during this time that humans and other species become vulnerable to infection.

In 1894 during the last pandemic Yersin identified the bacterial agent responsible for the disease (Yersinia Pestis) and a few years later Ashburton-Thompson in Australia revealed that the disease was spread by fleas. Today, Plague is a classic zoonosis permanently maintained in animal reservoirs throughout many parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the USA.

Allied to this, Plague remains closely linked to poverty in many parts of the developing world where poor drainage, slum and shanty housing, lack of water and sheer poverty enables the survival of large rat colonies.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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