The Black Plague is the stuff of legend. In the mid-14th century, this disease killed over 50 million people, nearly 50% of the entire population of Europe at the time. Ever since that time, the actual bacterial agent responsible for that epic pandemic was a mystery. It had been assumed that the pathogen was similar to a strand of the plague bug still around today, but one of a much more virulent strain. After all, only a superbug could cause that much death and destruction. Recently, however, scientists were able to study teeth and bones discovered in a mass grave that contained bodies of people who had apparently died of the Black Plague in that era. Using a new technique, they were able to coach out of these remains the actual pathogen responsible for the Plague. And what did they find? Nothing new! The microbe that killed 50 million people in the 14th century was basically the same as the one that exists in our world today. A mass killer is still among us! Why this bug was able to have such a destructive march in the 14th century and yet has remained in check in our modern world has virtually nothing to do with the bug, and has everything to do with the environment. And what was the environment like in that period? The answer is: climate changes, leading to floods and droughts, coupled with a major financial downturn that left scores of people in poverty. As a Time Magazine report states, “Economic downturns left large swaths of the population in poverty and squalor. The financial strains, the lack of public hygiene and sanitation, and an already weakened population made for ripe ground for a contagious and pathogenic bug like Y. pestis to flourish.”
This finding demonstrates that to a large degree, pathogens get their strength by what is happening in the natural and social environment. And when significant changes occur, either in weather patterns or the social condition, old enemies can re-emerge. This is not necessarily good news for our day. Climate change, coupled with global economic meltdown, is a description of our time as well. This may be setting the stage for dormant biohazards to roar back to life. In the face of this possibility, the best defense is a strong offense. This is another reason why we should unleash science and medical research and empower it to stay ahead of any possible threats. Rather than wasting time and energy on an ongoing debate about origins, we should forge strong partnerships between religion, politics, and science around issues of destinies. For in many ways, the future is shaping up to be a dangerous one.
In terms of Y pestis, the microbe behind the Black Death, nothing is new. And in this case, no news is bad news.
Want to learn more? Visit http://healthland.time.com/2011/10/13/the-black-death-bacterium-decoded/#ixzz1afigtE11