Rats May Not Be Responsible for Plague

Pet RatAs you may know, I am a big fan of rats. And now, the long maligned animal may finally get justice. The Guardian just reported, Black Death Was Not Spread By Rat Fleas, Say Researchers. According to a number of different studies, it seems that the “rat flea” theory is wrong. The plague moved much too fast to be transmitted via bites.

I was interested to find out that “bubonic” refers to the location that the disease manifests. The actual bacteria is Yersinia pestis. Bubonic refers to “bubo,” which is “an inflammatory swelling of a lymph gland especially in the groin.” The scientists claim that what killed all those people in the late 14th century was actually pneumonic plague, meaning it attacked and was transmitted through the lungs. You know: the normal way.

There are many other unusual things about the Black Death. According to research on wills, fully 60% of the residents of London died due to it. They say that so many people died largely because they were already very unhealthy. “The skeletons at Charterhouse Square reveal that the population of London was also in generally poor health when the disease struck. Crossrail’s archaeology contractor, Don Walker, and Jelena Bekvalacs of the Museum of London found evidence of rickets, anemia, bad teeth and childhood malnutrition.” Without the poor health, the plague would not have been nearly as bad.

Another amazing thing is that there was a recent outbreak of the disease in Madagascar that killed 60 people. When they compared the disease with that of the 14th century strain, they found no difference in terms of its virulence. That is a critical element. It seems before it was thought that the 14th century strain of Yersinia pestis was so virulent that rat fleas explained it.

In the end, I suspect that rats will not be exonerated regardless. Even the “rat flea” theory includes the potential for air transmission. And let’s face it: people love to hate rats. I think it is that they are too much like us: too successful. If we looked at humans from the outside, we would hate them too. Some of us on the inside aren’t too keen as well.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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