Black Death facts

The Black Death is one of the worst pandemics ever to occur in Europe. Believed to be caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and transmitted through the Oriental rat flea, it affected Europe badly from 1348 to 1350 killing as much as 75 to 200 million people. Several plague outbreaks were recorded in Europe until the 18th century resulting to extremely high death tolls.

All about Black Death

  • Origin

The origins of Black Death were believed to have come from Asia or Central Asia. It travelled down the Silk Road and Crimea in 1346. From there, Oriental rat fleas residing in black rats found in merchant ships transmitted the bacteria. As such, the plague spread from the Mediterranean and all throughout Europe. The term itself Black Death was an attribution to the gloom and doom of the plague which was lethal and life-threatening.

  • Causes

Rodents are the primary sources of the plague bacteria. Hence, large populations of rodents and poor sanitation are the main causes of the plague. Coughing or sneezing is the primary method of transmission of the bacteria from flea carriers to humans.

  • Types of plague

1. Bubonic plague

It takes 2-5 days after exposure to the bacteria for symptoms to appear such as chills and a high fever. Lymph nodes swell appearing on the neck, armpits, and groin. They are usually filled with pus. The heartbeat picks up and becomes weak. Blood pressure may drop. An infected person enters into a state of delirium and confusion. If untreated, 60% of people with the infection die with most deaths occurring from the 3rd to the 5th day.

2. Pneumonic plague

Pneumonic plague is an infection of the lungs caused by the plague bacteria. It is very contagious. Symptoms include high fever, chills, rapid heartbeat and intense headaches. Coughing develops within 24 hours of infection. In the beginning, the sputum is clear, but quickly becomes flecked with blood. If left untreated, an infected person dies within 48 hours.

3. Septicemic plague

This type of plague spreads into the blood system. Death may occur even before the appearance of symptoms.

4. Pestis minor

Pestis minor is localized and occurs only in areas where the plague is endemic. Symptoms include fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes and malaise.

  • Diagnosis and treatment

Plague is diagnosed by examining laboratory cultures taken from samples of blood, sputum or lymph nodes. Streptomycin injections for 10 days are given to infected patients.


While Black Death has been successfully eradicated from Europe, there were recent plague bacteria strains found in Madagascar in 1995 which are drug-resistant. Hence, people who are travelling or living in vulnerable areas should remain vigilant and seek medical help as soon as symptoms manifest. Vaccination against the plague is not available anymore. Controlling rodents, spraying repellent on the skin to avoid bites and sanitation are preventive strategies. Oral tetracycline therapy may also be advised as a preventive measure when there is suspicion of a plague outbreak.

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