Medical Definition of Great Plague

  • 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.

Great Plague: The "Great Plague" that swept London in 1665 was probably not really the plague but rather typhus.

True plague is a highly contagious, infectious, virulent, devastating disease due to a bacteria called Yersinia pestis which mainly infects rats and other rodents that serve as the prime reservoir for the bacteria. Fleas function as the prime vectors carrying the bacteria from one species to another. The fleas bite the rodents infected with Y. pestis and then they bite people and so transmit the disease to them.

Transmission of the plague to people can also occur from eating infected animals such as squirrels (for example, in the southeastern U.S.) Once someone has the plague, they can transmit it to another person via aerosol droplets.

The word "pestilence" comes from "pestis," the Latin word for "plague." Because the plague was responsible for so many deaths, the plague and death have long been linked in literature. The 14th- century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer spoke of "pestilence" in "The Pardoner's Tale": "Ther cam a privee theef men clepeth Deeth, / That in this contree al the peple sleeth, / And with his spere he smoot his herte atwo, / And wente his wey withouten wordes mo. / He hath a thousand slayn this pestilence."

"La Peste" (The Plague), a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning 20th- century French writer Albert Camus, is set in the Algerian city of Oran overrun by a deadly epidemic of the plague.

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Reviewed on 12/12/2018

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