Medieval Times: the plague (yes, the ‘black’ one) still infects thousands a year

More than 20,000 cases of the plague were reported in 12 countries between 2000 and 2009. The Black Death that you read about in history books and that wiped out millions in Europe never really went away.

New research from Thomas Butler,Ross University School of Medicine, Dominica, West Indies, in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene documents cases of the plague in the first decade of the 21st century.

The most significant burden is felt in African countries. Butler says that there are ways to treat the plague, but resource-sapped and poverty-stricken regions will probably continue to see the medieval disease persist for years to come.

Worldwide, 21,725 persons were affected with 1,612 deaths, for a case-fatality rate of 7.4%. The Congo reported more cases than any other country, including two large outbreaks of pneumonic plague, surpassing Madagascar, which had the most cases in the previous decade. Two United States scientists suffered fatal accidental exposures: a wildlife biologist, who carried out an autopsy on a mountain lion in Arizona in 2007, and a geneticist with subclinical hemochromatosis in Chicago, who was handling an avirulent strain of Y. pestis in 2009. Antimicrobial drugs given early after the onset of symptoms prevented many deaths; those recommended for treatment and prophylaxis included gentamicin, doxycycline, and fluoroquinolones, although fluoroquinolones have not been adequately tested in humans.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.