OCT 25, 2020 6:21 AM PDT

Over Time, Plague Infections Spread Faster

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

From the time of the Black Death, which happened around 1348, and the Great Plague of 1665, there were several epidemics of plague that occurred in Europe. Researchers analyzed the transmission of the disease over that period, and determined that in the 14th century, when around a third of Europe's population was killed by the plague, the number of infected people doubled about every 43 days. However, during later epidemics and the Great Plague, the number of infected individuals doubled about every eleven days - a dramatic increase in the rate of infection. The findings have been reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It is an astounding difference in how fast plague epidemics grew," said the lead study author David Earn, a professor in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics at McMaster University.

Public death records for London didn't start to be collected until 1538. So in this work, Earn and an investigative team that included statisticians, biologists, and geneticists studied historical documents like personal wills and the London Bills of Mortality to estimate death rates.

"At that time, people typically wrote wills because they were dying or they feared they might die imminently, so we hypothesized that the dates of wills would be a good proxy for the spread of fear, and of death itself. For the 17th century, when both wills and mortality were recorded, we compared what we can infer from each source, and we found the same growth rates," explained Earn.

"No one living in London in the 14th or 17th century could have imagined how these records might be used hundreds of years later to understand the spread of disease," added Earn.

We know that three types of plague, pneumonic, septicemic, and bubonic, are caused by a pathogenic microbe called Yersinia pestis.

"From genetic evidence, we have good reason to believe that the strains of bacterium responsible for plague changed very little over this time period, so this is a fascinating result," noted study co-author Hendrik Poinar, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at McMaster.

A digitally colorized SEM image of yellow-colored, Yersinia pestis bacteria gathered on the proventricular spines of a Xenopsylla cheopis flea. These spines are found in the interior of a part of the flea's digestive system. / Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

The study authors suggested that many of the epidemics they studied probably did not spread primarily through human to human contact. Instead, early and late pandemics seem to have been related to the spread of infected fleas, which are known to spread bubonic plague. Other factors like living conditions, cold temperatures, and population density were probably contributing factors, the researchers noted. If we can learn from these patterns we might be in a better position to respond to COVID-19 and other pandemics that might occur in the future.

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via McMaster University, Proceedings of the National Proceedings of Sciences

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
SEP 23, 2021
Clinical & Molecular DX
Skin Microbiome Analysis Gets Cleaned Up
SEP 23, 2021
Skin Microbiome Analysis Gets Cleaned Up
  Our skin is home to a carnival of millions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that together form the dermal microbio ...
OCT 26, 2021
Earth & The Environment
Glomalin, The Protein that Can Heal the Earth
OCT 26, 2021
Glomalin, The Protein that Can Heal the Earth
Soil quality is growing ever more important as we attempt to feed the growing world population. Our soils are being degr ...
NOV 04, 2021
Chemistry & Physics
The Future of Data Storage: Fluorescent Molecules
NOV 04, 2021
The Future of Data Storage: Fluorescent Molecules
There is a data storage problem. Not every piece of information can be stored in the cloud (aka: on the internet); some ...
NOV 07, 2021
Genetics & Genomics
New Model Teaches Us More About Why the Delta Variant is So Infectious
NOV 07, 2021
New Model Teaches Us More About Why the Delta Variant is So Infectious
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact the world, researchers everywhere sprang into action. But studying an infecti ...
NOV 15, 2021
Microbiology
Is the Gut Microbiome - Autism Link Due to Diet?
NOV 15, 2021
Is the Gut Microbiome - Autism Link Due to Diet?
Research has shown that the gut microbiome, which consists of trillions of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microorga ...
DEC 02, 2021
Microbiology
Antibodies Seem to Keep Gut Fungi in Check, Except in Crohn's Patients
DEC 02, 2021
Antibodies Seem to Keep Gut Fungi in Check, Except in Crohn's Patients
The bacteria that live in the gut microbiome have gotten a lot of attention, and for good reason; gut bacteria have been ...
Loading Comments...