Everyone’s worried about Ebola lately, right? Ebola in Texas, West Africa, where will it strike next? What will become of the parts of Africa where it has struck? Well what about all the plagues and diseases of the past? Ebola isn’t the first disease to strike the world.
There was the Black Death, also known as the Bubonic plague in the 1300s. In four years, it killed “tens of millions of people” in Europe. (source) It’s caused by bacteria, Yersinia Pestis, which overwhelms the immune system. Nowadays, only 5% of those with Bubonic plague may die due to medical intervention, but back in the day, “fifty to ninety percent of untreated” patients would die.
On the plus side, Europe became a lot more sanitary after that, cleaning up the rodents that could have caused the plague. They also started improving diets because those who were weaker, older, or sick already were most of the people who died from the Bubonic plague.
Another disease causing multiple epidemics was smallpox. It was extremely infectious between humans and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in Europe from 1400-1800. It also has hit China, Egypt, and the Roman Empire, causing massive casualties. It only takes 24 hours for the rash to spread over the entire body. Still, death didn’t come for 11-16 days after showing symptoms. It wasn’t until 1967 that the World Health Organization tried to eradicate it globally. At that time the disease was mostly in India. It was considered eradicated after the last case in 1977. (Agents of Bioterrorism by Geoffrey Zubay et al. QR 175.M55)
Up until now and since 1976, Ebola has come in outbreaks infecting and killing hundreds, but this time the virus has spread to nearly 5000 people killing 52% of them. (source) There are a few strains of Ebola with varying fatality rates, usually from 50-90%. It can take three weeks for the virus to kill someone, but it can take three months to recover. Since it’s a virus and not a bacterial infection, it is more difficult to create a vaccine for it.
So will there be any changes in Africa once the epidemic ends? Will it be like the plague where they learned from it and improved hygiene practices and diet? Will someone be able to create a vaccine?
I found it very interesting to sit down with a few of these books and skim them for information about plagues and diseases. If you want to learn more about these and other viruses, pandemics, epidemics, and plagues, check out some of the books we have on this topic. You can also visit the QR, microbiology, section of our collection for more books on viruses.