Resurgence of the Bubonic Plague? Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Worry About It

by Anna Divinagracia

Note: This article was previously published in Hiraya Zine Volume 1, Issue 2: Science for Society last September 2020.

Art by Julianna Dong for Hiraya Zine.

It couldn’t get any worse, right? Every day, masked individuals roam the streets, some fearing for their lives, and others quite annoyed at the fact that they are mandated to don personal protective equipment. Every hour, the SARS-CoV-2 virus strikes to survive, inhabiting thousands of hosts daily. Every minute is a minute dedicated to longing for the beautiful outdoors, to missing the sounds of the bustling streets. It couldn’t get any worse.

Can it?

All hell broke loose on social media when a mysterious case of the Bubonic Plague resurfaced in China last July. You read that right: the Bubonic Plague. The infamous plague was known to have been the cause of the similarly infamous Black Death, the deadliest pandemic in human history. Killing millions of individuals across the world in the 14th Century, netizens believe that the Bubonic Plague is the cream on the cupcake of chaos. Apparently, it could get even worse.

But, is it?

Ships from the Black Sea arriving at the port of Sicily, Messina. Image from Jeff Cunningham.

Centuries-old tale

Europe, 1347. The Sicilian port of Messina was met with ships of terrifying prospects: dead and ill sailors, covered in black boils, oozing with blood and pus. Rumors of a “Great Pestilence” in the East had reached the ears of the Europeans prior to this event, leaving them wondering if they were indeed witnessing the remnants of the deadly disease. The Sicilian authorities desperately attempted to remove the “death ships” from their harbor, but their efforts were in vain, for over the course of five years, the Black Death would claim more than 20 million souls on Eurasian states.

Without the proper equipment, physicians could not possibly comprehend the mechanism of the disease. Doctors were walking blindly through the blizzard of death, relying on multiple unverified (and some dangerous) practices and techniques that had supposedly worked on other sicknesses.

After a time, healthy doctors refused to see patients, and the needy were left alone to fend for themselves. As the saying goes, “To each his own.” Such was exemplified by the world under the Black Death.

Five years passed, and the Black Death was gradually becoming more tractable. Individuals started to practice social distancing — a practice we, too, should learn to develop. People began to resume their daily activities, with evident caution, although reality was more bearable. True enough, things went back to normal.

That didn’t mean that the Bubonic Plague was gone forever, though.

Centuries later, cases of the bubonic plague in China and the United States of America resurface mid-pandemic, causing panic and confusion. Questions regarding the safety of the human race undergoing two pandemics simultaneously arose, initiating discourse and clarification.

We know better

In today’s age, the Bubonic Plague is nothing to worry about. We know a lot more than our forefathers in the 14th Century did.

Caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the Bubonic Plague is a serious lymphatic infection contracted by about 1,000 to 2,000 people yearly. The most known symptom for the bubonic-type plague would be swollen lymph nodes called buboes.

Y. pestis is transmitted to humans by infected fleas, rodents, squirrels, or hares through biting or scratching, with infected individuals exhibiting symptoms such as fever, vomiting, bleeding, organ failure, and open sores. According to professionals, it is unlikely that person-to-person transmissions of the plague can cause a major outbreaks.

Patients infected by the Bubonic Plague with open sores. Image by Alami on BBC.

If not treated immediately, the bacteria can spread to the bloodstream, causing sepsis and potential infection of the lungs. According to the World Health Organization, without treatment, up to 60 percent of individuals who contract the bubonic plague perish.

Thankfully, prevention and treatment are made easier by enhanced technology and medical knowledge accumulated by professionals. As long as you don’t touch an animal infected with the plague, the chances of you contracting it are incredibly low. In case you do get infected, for history to not repeat itself, the disease is now easily cured using antibiotics.

The bottom line: no, we aren’t getting a do-over of the Black Death. Scientists have already conducted research on these events for us to be safe from any potential threats. Therefore, you’ll be perfectly fine when it comes to the bubonic plague.

With regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, though: stay indoors, wear a mask, and save lives.

#ARCHIVES: This article was previously published in Hiraya Zine Volume 1, Issue 2: Science for Society last September 2020. Download the zine for free here.

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