Saturday, June 16, 2012

Could the 'Black Death' Strike Again?

After viewing the recent History channel documentary, 'The Plague', on the Black Death and how it wiped out up to 60% of the population of Europe, many people would (rightly) believe it to be an ancient pestilence of the Dark or Middle Ages. No need to fret now. We have things under control.  Technology and modern medicine can save the day!

And so we would not expect to hear, for example, news blared over CNN that up to 55% of Buffalo's population was wiped out and the pestilence was headed next for Albany, making people in that capital cower and quake with fear as Italians did in Milan when they first heard of the plague striking Genoa and Florence and wiping out two-thirds or more of their populations.

According to Sean Martin, the author of 'The Black Death'  (2007) what we now refer to as 'the Black Death' was actually the second pandemic of the plague - the first occurring over 527- 565, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian, and hence called 'the Plague of Justinian'. Unlike the Black Death, Justinian's plague is believed to have come from East Africa.

The History Channel documentary, meanwhile, traces the origin of the Black Death in Europe to the Mongol hordes who poured across the Steppes westward and raced toward the Black Sea eager to seize ever more territory and booty as they plundered their way along well known trade routes. Ultimately meeting resistance from the Europeans (near the city of Kaffa), the Mongols were more beset by the Plague (Bubonic) in their midst. With their corpses mounting and will crumbling they made a last resort effort to use catapults to hurl the plague -ravaged corpses of their comrades into the middle of the city. (This scenario is also confirmed by Martin, op. cit., p. 25). This is perhaps the first known instance of human biological warfare, albeit crude!

According to Martin (ibid.):

"In the confined environment of a walled city, the plague quickly did its work. No matter how fast the Genoese merchants disposed of the bodies of the Khan's troops (by dumping them in the Black Sea), they couldn't out run the pace of the disease. They took to their boats and fled.  Within a few days they would have realized they had unwittingly brought the plague back with them."

The rest as they is 'history' as historians such as the Byzantine Nicephoros Gregoras documented the plague's spread west of the Bosporus. Most of the spread came via flea -bearing hordes of rats or just flea infested clothing, with the fleas themselves carrying the plague bacteria known as Yersinias pestis. At that time, with fleas in abundance, everyone became a potential carrier, and so it spread across Europe, to Florence, to Marseilles, to Paris, then to England ....putting 1.5 million corpses down before exhausting itself sometime after 1352.

According to Martin, the Black Death is "traditionally thought to be a mixture of bubonic, septicaemic, and pneumonic plague" and he speculates on some unnamed 'third factor' that may have made it even more virulent. In the bubonic plague, the lymphatic system is attacked generating boil-like black eruptions ('buboes') the size of oranges. The growths are hideous and painful to the touch and can appear anywhere from the neck, to the armpits and groin....but often most where the victim was first bitten.

As time goes on, the person vomits repeatedly, has a high fever and the buboes themselves make 'gurgling' sounds and the potential to erupt. In 60% of the time when they are untreated the person perishes, often with his or her body peppered by black buboes - hence the term, 'Black Death'. Vomiting itself, accompanied by high fever, is often the sign that the disease has become septicaemic ....non-stop watery diarrhea follows with black, bruise-like discolorations appearing on the skin, just before the hapless victim expires.

Pneumonic or pulmonary plague occurs when the plague bacillus misses the lymphatics and settles in the lungs instead. The most frequent symptom is the violent expectoration of blood. The problem? WIth each cough-released stream of bloody sputum, the plague bacilli are released as well - resulting in airborne transmission.

The target flea  for the Yersinias pestis bacterium  is Xenopsylla cheopsis. Once it infects this flea, Yersinias' tendency is to keep on multiplying until it eventually totally blocks the flea's oesophagus making the critter chronically thirsty. The flea must then seek blood sources. Since rats are the most prolific, and especially at the times of the plague bred relentlessly because of sewage and garbage strewn all about, the fleas seek out these beasties first. When one dies, they jump to another, and have no qualms about choosing humans as the next best source to quench their thirst.

Now, having noted all this the recent news that a 50-something male in Oregon is now in critical condition with the same 'Black Death' bacteria may well be unsettling. For at once it scotches the belief that the disease is an ancient one, now interred with the denizens afflicted during the Middle Ages.  Indeed,
Yersinias pestis, still circulates among the fleas that live on rodents and other animals. In the case of the Oregon victim, it's theorized he was infected by the culprit flea while trying to free a dead mouse from the jaws of a stray cat. In this case, the flea would have jumped from the dead critter and bitten the man, injecting him with millions of Yersina pestis bacilli.

This introduces the question of whether, or under what circumstance, we might see a revival of a Black Death plague such as took out tens of millions of people around the world in the Middle Ages. A few scenarios:

1) The Plague bacillus is 'weaponized' and then spread by a vicious series of attacks around the world - which could be as simple as leaving infected bodies in reservoirs, or placing them amidst high population centers. 

2) The planks and supports of civilization give way because of lack of investment in those things (e.g. infrastructure, via sewage and water mains) which preserve hygeinic standards. If such decay proliferates, say for example because of massive austerity cutbacks wherein even basic maintenance (say to sewer systems) is refused, one could envisage scenarios where plague could erupt. Especially if sanitation services are also affected - and at the same time antibiotics cease to work.  (We know plague can usually be effectively treated currently by antibiotics but the treatment must begin immediately, no delays)

3) Peak Oil striking at the same time as massive climatic dislocations, knocking out our power grids and hence, sanitation processing capacity. Obviously, once lack of energy enters and garbage can no longer be compressed and disposed of, or solid wastes eliminated, we are approaching the situation and conditions that occurred in the Middle Ages - before the era of technology enabling flush toilets, sewer systems and mass garbage disposal.

One thing we do know, according to financial futurist and value investor Jeremy Grantham (MONEY, July, p. 84), is that the costs to support infrastructure and the resources to furnish it or refurbish it will continue to increase. According to Grantham (ibid.):

"We used to live in world where the price of resources came down steadily and now the world has changed. you have a great mismatch between finite resources and exponential population growth...the global population has soared form 6 to 7 billion in 12 years and is now on its way to 9 billion."

Grantham's forecast: of the ever higher cost of precious commodities, not only energy but metals, is a shot over the bow of those of us who believed once ancient pestilences can never return. Because if the now prevalent austerity mindset combines with the pullback of investment in our critical support systems - mainly for water, sewage prcessing and waste removal - we may not have to wait long before seeing history repeat.

Oh, and one more thing for the record:

A plague vaccine exists but is no longer available to the public. It's typically offered only to military personnel or to animal handlers in plague-infested regions. Should a new Black Death erupt, millions of lives would be lost before this vaccine could be mass-produced.


Mike said...

I published a blog post on this:

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

Opal said...

Improved personal hygiene -- bathing and not living in proximity to garbage and vermin -- strongly mitigates against plague contagion. The Oregon case is a very specific and very rare mode of transmission. If you're looking for the next big humanity-killer, it's more likely to resemble the 1917-18 Spanish Flu pandemic.

Copernicus said...

Mike wrote:

"I published a blog on this"

Thanks, I will check it out!

Copernicus said...

Opal wrote:

"Improved personal hygiene -- bathing and not living in proximity to garbage and vermin -- strongly mitigates against plague contagion."

Agreed! I noted there are definite scenarios under which sustaining hygiene would be a challenge or impossible, including in an environment of inadequate energy (oil) sources. Once those power grids go down, flush toilets and garbage compactors as well as high tech compressors will be about as useful as teeth on a hen.

Also, massive austerity cutbacks over time could produce analogous results.

I do agree these things are likely more in the future, but may not be as far in the future as many in this country believe. Look at the state of Greece's collapse so far with the austerity imposed...and more to come. My bet? If plague does flare again it will do so in the most austerity-plagued nations.

"The Oregon case is a very specific and very rare mode of transmission."

Agreed again. But in a condition of decaying infrastructure and hygiene - which we may well see eventually, not unheard of on a larger scale.

"If you're looking for the next big humanity-killer, it's more likely to resemble the 1917-18 Spanish Flu pandemic"

Agreed again. Especially since they reverse engineered it and now - even dumber imho- published papers on genetically engineering an airborne Avian flu.

Copernicus said...

Mike, thanks for your blog link. It is short, but the points made are powerfully cogent and I'd hope anyone who really believes a recurrence of 'Black Death' is somehow unlikely would read it.

Including 'Opal'.