Black death pandemics

Pandemics of the plague have broken out three times in recorded history. A pandemic is a large-scale epidemic. In an epidemic, a disease is confined to certain locations, such as cities or regions. In a pandemic, people are afflicted with a disease over entire countries or continents. Given time, a pandemiccan circle the globe. After an initial outbreak that lasts several years, the disease virtually disappears, only to break out in periodic epidemics in the following years. This cycle can be repeated for decades or even centuries before the disease disappears completely.

The first pandemic of plague began in A.D. 542 during the reign of Justinian, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire; for this reason it is calledJustinian's plague. It seems to have begun in Egypt and spread northward through the eastern Mediterranean region. In the following years it swept through Europe, central and southern Asia, North Africa, and Arabia, leaving millions dead. The plague struck at a critical time. In Constantinople, the capitalof the Byzantine empire, Justinian and his generals were in the midst of battles to rejoin Byzantium to the remains of Western Roman Empire. Justinian'sdream was to re-establish the former Roman Empire; and he might have succeeded if not for the plague. Procopius, a historian living in Constantinople at the time, vividly described the plague and its effects. His writings also include an accurate description of what would later be called the bubonic plague.He wrote about agitated, feverish disease victims with painfully enlarged lymph nodes (buboes) under their arms and in their groins. According to Procopius, 300,000 people died within the city alone. It is impossible to verify whether that figure is accurate, but it is certain that Justinian's plague had adramatic effect on history. Justinian's plans to re-establish the Roman Empire were very likely derailed because of the loss of manpower. In the west, the remnants of the Western Roman empire collapsed into the Dark Ages. Following the initial outbreak in 542, the plague disappeared and reappeared at intervals over the next 200 years. The years 542 to 600 were the most intense plagues years, but local epidemics flared up throughout the Mediterranean regionthrough the mid-eighth century. The population of Europe wasn't able to recover between outbreaks and some historians estimate that the population droppedby half between 542 and 700. After the late-eighth century, plague disappeared from Europe for nearly 600 years.

In 1346, plague was poised to make another sweep through Europe. This pandemic would later be called the Black Death pandemic. Its entry into Europe was through Kaffa, a small Italian trading colony on the shore of the Black Sea inCrimea. Kaffa was besieged by an army and during the siege, plague broke outamong the soldiers. According to some sources, the soldiers threw the corpses of those who died over the town walls to spread plague among the men defending the town. Whether that caused plague to break out in the town is unknown,but the defenders were afflicted. They managed to get to their boats and flee to Italy, unknowingly carrying the disease with them. By late 1347, plaguewas widespread in the Mediterranean region, and in 1348 it spread throughoutItaly, France, and England. The Middle East and the Far East were also severely affected. As with Justinian's plague, death rates were appallingly high. From 1346 to 1354, an estimated 20 million people died of plague in Europe. Medieval physicians were at a loss to explain the disease. Some claimed it wasdue to person-to-person infection, while others said it arose from a poisonous atmosphere. Other explanations put forth by a panicked public blamed astrological influences, divine punishment, and the Jewish community. Tens of thousands of Jewish citizens were burned in Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and France despite protests by Pope Clement VI, Emperor Charles IV, and medical experts who said that they were innocent. However, the authorities were powerless to stop the spread of plague, and they were not believed. Quarantines of plague victims were ordered, but they were largely ineffective because the diseasewas spread mostly by fleas carried on black rats. Historians estimate that 25-50% of the total population died, and they note that the Black Death undoubtably changed the course of world history. The last major outbreaks of the Black Death pandemic occurred in London in 1665-1666 and in Marseilles in 1720-1722. Each of these outbreaks resulted in approximately 100,000 deaths.

The third pandemic, or Modern pandemic, started in the mid-19th century in central Asia. According to most sources, it continues to the present time. TheModern pandemic began in Yunnan, China, and spread through China and India inthe next four years. It reached Bombay in 1896 and is believed to have killed six million people in India alone. From Canton, Hong Kong, and other seaports, plague spread to other continents. Epidemics linked to the Modern pandemic were reported in San Francisco, New Orleans, and other coastal cities throughout the world and millions died. The Modern pandemic also established in areas that previously had been plague free, including North America, South America, and southern Africa. It was during the outbreak in Hong Kong, that the cause of plague, the bacterium was finally identified. Alexandre Yersin, a Swiss bacteriologist, made the discovery that a bacterium caused plague. He named it Pasteurella pestis in honor of Louis Pasteur, but it was later renamed Yersinia pestis to honor Yersin. With the advent of vaccines andantibiotics and the understanding of how plague spreads, the Modern pandemichas been contained and the plague no longer claims millions of victims. However, health authorities remain vigilant because the plague has not been eradicated. According to World Health Organization figures, there were nearly 19,000 cases of plague from 1980 to 1994.

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