Plague (Black Death)

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Steven Doerr, MD
    Steven Doerr, MD

    Steven Doerr, MD

    Steven Doerr, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Doerr received his undergraduate degree in Spanish from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He graduated with his Medical Degree from the University Of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado in 1998 and completed his residency training in Emergency Medicine from Denver Health Medical Center in Denver, Colorado in 2002, where he also served as Chief Resident.

Plague & Bioterrorism

With bioterrorism, there may be the possibility of transmission of disease from one human to another (for example, measles, influenza, avian flu, smallpox, plague, and viral hemorrhagic fevers). In the case of either a bioterrorism attack or just a natural outbreak, it may be necessary to avoid contact with infected people or just remain inside for a period of time until the infected people are no longer contagious.

Plague (Black Death) facts

  • Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria known as Yersinia pestis.
  • Plague has a high fatality rate and has been described for centuries.
  • In the Middle Ages, plague was known as the "Black Death" and caused the death of 60% of the population of Europe.
  • Transmission occurs via fleas that feed on infected animals, typically wild rodents.
  • There are three forms of plague in humans: bubonic plague, septicemic plague, and pneumonic plague.
  • The signs and symptoms of plague generally develop between two and seven days after a person acquires the infection. Symptoms and signs depend on one of the three forms of plague and include the following:
  • Antibiotics are the treatment of choice for plague and are most effective when given early in the course of disease.
  • There is no commercially available vaccine against plague.
  • Plague may be found in low levels in animals in the southwestern U.S.
  • Diagnosis of plague depends upon identifying the causative bacteria in fluid or tissue samples.

What is plague? What is the history of plague?

Plague is a bacterial disease that is infamous for causing millions of deaths in the Middle Ages in Europe. Many historical references describe the illness, which has been referred to as the Black Death. The first reported plague pandemic began in 541 A.D. and lasted for over 200 years, killing an estimated 100 million people or more throughout the Mediterranean basin. The so-called Black Death, or pandemic of the Middle Ages, began in China and made its way to Europe, causing the death of 60% of the entire population. The third, or modern, pandemic started in China in the 19th century and spread to port cities all over the world. Most recently, the World Health Organization reported an outbreak of plague in Madagascar in November 2014. The outbreak affected over 100 patients and caused at least 40 deaths.

Rodents and many other kinds of animals can be infected with plague-causing bacteria. People contract the bacteria through bites of fleas that have fed on infected rodents. Humans can also develop the infection from handling fluids or tissues from infected animals. People with plague pneumonia can also transmit the infection to other humans via coughing infectious droplets into the air.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/8/2015

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