Black Death 'spread by humans not rats' - study reveals

Leslie Hanson
Января 17, 2018

An global team of scientists from the University of Oslo and the University of Ferrara examined a number of characteristics of the pandemic including how it spread so quickly.

The findings challenge "the assumption that plague in Europe was predominantly spread by rats", the researchers wrote in their study, published online today (Jan. 16) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It has always been thought that the plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which lasted in Europe until the early 19th century, was spread by rats.

The Black Death claimed an estimated 25 million lives, more than a third of Europe's population, between 1347 and 1351.

The generally accepted story goes like this: rats aboard merchant ships brought infected fleas back to Europe from the Orient, and the fleas began spreading among the European populace, which hadn't figured out that bathing was a good thing to do every once in a while. Plague outbreaks since the 1800s are indeed connected to rodents, with fleas that drink the blood of infected rats spreading the disease as they move onto humans.

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But some argue that this mode of transmission doesn't fit with the historical evidence.

The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, killing between 75 and 200 million people in a number of outbreaks in Eurasia between the 14th and 19th centuries. For example, fleas and lice could have fed on infected humans, and then transmitted the disease to other humans.

Using mortality data, they examined nine outbreaks from 1348 to 1813 during the so-called Second Pandemic in cities including London, Stockholm, Moscow and Florence.

Researchers from Oslo University created a mathematical model for how people would have died if rats were the villains. "It is therefore crucial that we understand the full spectrum of capabilities that this versatile, pandemic disease has exhibited in the past".

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