Bubonic plague: 5 things you need to know

Hyperaxion July 6, 2020 11:51 pm

Infection with the bacterium Yersinia pestis killed almost a third of the European population in the 14th century. Today, the disease is rare and less fatal.

The bubonic plague made headlines again in early July 2020, when cases of the disease were confirmed in Asia. The infection is frightening for those who know a little history: during the Middle Ages, almost a third of the European population died in a pandemic from the disease: The Black Death.

Bubonic plague: 5 things you need to know
Yersinia pestis. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Learn more about the disease that has taken the lives of so many people – and it’s still a cause for concern:

1. What is it

Bubonic plague is one of the three diseases caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis: the other two are septicemic plague and pneumonic plague. The microorganism is transmitted mainly by fleas found in small animals, such as rats. In humans, exposure to sick animals can lead to infection by the bacteria.

2. Symptoms

Among the symptoms of Bubonic Plague are fever, chills, weakness, and difficulty breathing. Still, the main sign of the disease is the formation of painful nodes (called buboes) throughout the body.

The presence of buboes is the main symptom of bubonic plague.
The presence of buboes is the main symptom of bubonic plague. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

3. Diagnosis and treatment

To diagnose the disease, doctors look for the presence of buboes and/or signs that the patient has been bitten by a flea. Blood tests can also help diagnose the infection. Treatment is done with antibiotics, which may change according to the severity of the case.

4. The 14th-century pandemic

The Bubonic Plague pandemic terrorized Europe between 1346 and 1353, killing almost a third of the continent’s population. At the time, poor hygiene conditions and a lack of medical knowledge contributed to the spread of the disease.

Even after the end of the pandemic in the 14th century, other outbreaks occurred throughout history, mainly until the end of the Modern Age (18th century).

Artistic representation of a city affected by the bubonic plague.
Artistic representation of a city affected by the bubonic plague. (Credit: Pieter Bruegel / Museo del Prado).

5. Recent cases

Although rare, Bubonic Plague still occurs, especially in rural areas where there is more contact with wild animals that may be infected with Yersinia pestis. According to the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2000 and 2018 there were between 1 and 17 cases of the disease per year in the country.

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