Bubonic plague

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Bubonic plague
Classification and external resources
Plague -buboes.jpg
An inguinal bubo on the upper thigh of person infected with bubonic plague. Swollen lymph glands (buboes) often occur in the neck, armpit and groin (inguinal) regions of plague victims
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Bubonic plague
Classification and external resources
Plague -buboes.jpg
An inguinal bubo on the upper thigh of person infected with bubonic plague. Swollen lymph glands (buboes) often occur in the neck, armpit and groin (inguinal) regions of plague victims

Bubonic plague is a zoonotic disease, circulating mainly in fleas on small rodents, and is one of three types of bacterial infections caused by Yersinia pestis (formerly known as Pasteurella pestis), that belongs to the family Enterobacteriaceae. Without treatment, the bubonic plague kills about two thirds of infected humans within four days.

The term bubonic plague is derived from the Greek word βουβών, meaning "groin." Swollen lymph nodes (buboes) especially occur in the armpit and groin in persons suffering from bubonic plague. Bubonic plague was often used synonymously for plague, but it does in fact refer specifically to an infection that enters through the skin and travels through the lymphatics, as is often seen in flea-borne infections.

Bubonic plague—along with the septicemic plague and the pneumonic plague, which are the two other manifestations of Y. pestis—is commonly believed to be the cause of the Black Death that swept through Europe in the 14th century and killed an estimated 25 million people, or 30–60% of the European population.[1] Around the Mediterranean Region, summers seemed to be the season when the disease took place. While in Europe, people found the disease most occurring in the autumn.[2] Because the plague killed so many of the working population, wages rose and some historians have seen this as a turning point in European economic development.[3][4]

Signs and symptoms

Acral necrosis of the nose, the lips, and the fingers and residual ecchymoses over both forearms in a patient recovering from bubonic plague that disseminated to the blood and the lungs. At one time, the patient's entire body was ecchymotic. Reprinted from Textbook of Military Medicine.

The most infamous symptom of bubonic plague is an infection of the lymph glands (lymphadenitis), which become swollen and painful and are known as buboes. After being transmitted via the bite of an infected flea the Y. pestis bacteria become localized in an inflamed lymph node where they begin to colonize and reproduce. Buboes associated with the bubonic plague are commonly found in the armpits, upper femoral, groin and neck region. Acral gangrene (i.e. of the fingers, toes, lips and nose), is another common symptom.

Due to its bite-based form of infection, the bubonic plague is often the first step of a progressive series of illnesses. Bubonic plague symptoms appear suddenly, usually 2–5 days after exposure to the bacteria. Symptoms include:

Other symptoms include heavy breathing, continuous vomiting of blood (hematemesis), aching limbs, coughing, and extreme pain. The pain is usually caused by the decay or decomposition of the skin while the person is still alive. Additional symptoms include extreme fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, lenticulae (black dots scattered throughout the body), delirium, and coma.

Two other types of Y. pestis plague are pneumonic and septicemic. Pneumonic plague, unlike the bubonic or septicemic, induces coughing and is very infectious, allowing it to be spread person to person.


Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) infected with the Yersinia pestis bacterium which appears as a dark mass in the gut. The foregut of this flea is blocked by a Y. pestis biofilm; when the flea attempts to feed on an uninfected host, Y. pestis from the foregut is regurgitated into the wound, causing infection.

Bubonic plague is an infection of the lymphatic system, usually resulting from the bite of an infected flea, Xenopsylla cheopis (the rat flea). In very rare circumstances, as in the septicemic plague, the disease can be transmitted by direct contact with infected tissue or exposure to the cough of another human. The fleas are often found on rodents such as rats and mice, and seek out other prey when their rodent hosts die. The bacteria began its life harmlessly living in the digestive tracts of mammals. The ability to propagate was dependent only upon its ability to travel from mammal host to mammal host. The bacteria remained harmless to the flea, allowing the new host to spread the bacteria. The bacteria form aggregates in the gut of infected fleas and this results in the flea regurgitating ingested blood, which is now infected, into the bite site of a rodent or human host. Once established, bacteria rapidly spread to the lymph nodes and multiply.

Y. pestis bacilli can resist phagocytosis and even reproduce inside phagocytes and kill them. As the disease progresses, the lymph nodes can haemorrhage and become swollen and necrotic. Bubonic plague can progress to lethal septicemic plague in some cases. The plague is also known to spread to the lungs and become the disease known as the pneumonic plague. This form of the disease is highly communicable as the bacteria can be transmitted in droplets emitted when coughing or sneezing.[citation needed]


Laboratory testing is required in order to diagnose and confirm plague. Ideally, confirmation is through the identification of Y. pestis culture from a patient sample. Confirmation of infection can be done by examining serum taken during the early and late stages of infection. To quickly screen for the Y. pestis antigen in patients, rapid dipstick tests have been developed for field use.[7]


Several classes of antibiotics are effective in treating bubonic plague. These include aminoglycosides such as streptomycin and gentamicin, tetracyclines (especially doxycycline), and the fluoroquinolone ciprofloxacin. Mortality associated with treated cases of bubonic plague is about 1–15%, compared to a mortality of 40–60% in untreated cases.[8]

People potentially infected with the plague need immediate treatment and should be given antibiotics within 24 hours of the first symptoms to prevent death. Other treatments include oxygen, intravenous fluids, and respiratory support. People who have had contact with anyone infected by pneumonic plague are given prophylactic antibiotics.[9] Using the broad-based antibiotic streptomycin has proven to be dramatically successful against the bubonic plague within 12 hours of infection.[10]


Early outbreaks

Bubonic plague victims in a mass grave from 1720–1721 in Martigues, France
From a series of images showing the areas in Sydney, Australia, affected by the outbreak of Bubonic Plague in 1900. Taken by Mr. John Degotardi, Jr., photographer from the Department of Public Works, the images depict the state of the houses and 'slum' buildings at the time of the outbreak and the cleansing and disinfecting operations which followed.

The first recorded epidemic ravaged the Byzantine Empire during the sixth century, and was named the Plague of Justinian after emperor Justinian I, who was infected but survived through extensive treatment.[11][12] The epidemic is estimated to have killed approximately 50 million people in the Roman Empire alone.[13] The historian Procopius wrote, in Volume II of History of the Wars, his encounter with the plague and the effect it had on the rising empire. In the spring of 542, the plague arrived in Constantinople, working its way from port city to port city and spreading through the Mediterranean, later migrating inland eastward into Asia Minor and west into Greece and Italy. Because the infectious disease spread inland by the transferring of merchandise through Justinian’s efforts in acquiring luxurious goods of the time and exporting supplies, his capital became the leading exporter of the bubonic plague. Procopius, in his work Secret History, declared that Justinian was a demon of an emperor who either created the plague himself or was being punished for his sinfulness.[13]

Black Death

In the Late Middle Ages (1340–1400) Europe experienced the most deadly disease outbreak in history when the Black Death, the infamous pandemic of bubonic plague, hit in 1347, killing a third of the human population. It is believed that society subsequently became more violent as the mass mortality rate cheapened life and thus increased warfare, crime, popular revolt, waves of flagellants, and persecution.[14] The Black Death originated in or near China and spread from Italy and then throughout other European countries. Arab historians, Ibn Al-Wardni and Almaqrizi believed that origins of the Black Death started off in Mongolia. Later, it was proven that their thesis was correct, as Chinese records showed that the disease made a huge outbreak in Mongolia in the early 1330s.[15] Research published in 2002 suggests that it began in the spring of 1346 in the steppe region, where a plague reservoir stretches from the northwestern shore of the Caspian Sea into southern Russia. The Mongols had cut off the trade route, the Silk Road, between China and Europe which halted the spread of the Black Death from eastern Russia to Western Europe. The epidemic began with an attack that Mongols launched on the Italian merchant's last trading station in the region, Caffa in the Crimea.[10] In the autumn of 1346, plague broke out among the besiegers and from them penetrated into the town. When spring arrived, the Italian merchants fled on their ships, unknowingly carrying the Black Death. Carried by the fleas on rats, the plague initially spread to humans near the Black Sea and then outwards to the rest of Europe as a result of people fleeing from one area to another.

There were many ethno-medical beliefs of prevention methods for avoiding the Black Death. One of the most famous ideas was that by walking around with flowers in or around their nose people would be able to "ward off the stench and perhaps the evil that afflicted them. Since the people didn't have the knowledge to understand the plague, people believed the plague to be a punishment from God. The only way to be rid of the plague was to be forgiven by God.[16] One such method used was to carve the symbol of the cross onto the front door of a house with the words "Lord have mercy on us" near it.[17]

Pistoia, a city in Italy, even went as far as enacting rules and regulations on the city and its inhabitants to keep it safe from the Black Death. The rules stated that no one was allowed to visit any plague-infected area and if they did they were not allowed back into the city. Some other rules were that no linen or woollen goods were to be imported into the city and no corpses were to be buried in the city. However, despite strict enforcement of the rules, the city eventually became infected.[18] People who weren't infected with the plague, gathered in groups and stayed away from the sick. They ate and drank with limited food and water and weren't even allowed oral communication because merely talking with one another increased the chance of passing on the disease.[19]

While Europe was devastated by the disease, the rest of the world fared much better. In India, populations rose from a population of 91 million in 1300, to 97 million in 1400, to 105 million in 1500. Also sub-Saharan Africa remained largely unaffected by the plagues.[20]

Traditional treatment

Medieval doctors thought the plague was created by air corrupted by humid weather, decaying unburied bodies, and fumes produced by poor sanitation. The recommended treatment of the plague was a good diet, rest, and relocating to a non-infected environment so the individual could get access to clean air. This did help, but not for the reasons the doctors of the time thought. In actuality, because they recommended moving away from unsanitary conditions, people were, in effect, getting away from the rodents that harbored the fleas carrying the infection. However, this also helped to spread the infection to new areas previously non-infected.

Later outbreaks

Directions for searchers, Poona (now Pune) plague of 1897

The next few centuries were marked by several local outbreaks of lesser severity. The Great Plague of Seville (1647), the Great Plague of London (1665–1666), the Great Plague of Vienna (1679), Great Plague of Riga (1710) and the Great Plague of Marseille (1720), were the last major outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Europe.

The plague resurfaced in the mid-19th century; like the Black Death, the Third Pandemic began in Central Asia. The disease killed millions in China and India—mostly a British possession at the time—and then spread worldwide. The outbreak continued into the early 20th century. In 1897, the city of Poona (now Pune) in India was severely affected by the outbreak.

In 1899, the islands of Hawaii were also hit by the plague.[21] The first evidence of the disease was found in Honolulu's Chinatown on Oahu.[22] It was located very close to the island's piers, and rats in cargo ships from China were able to land on the Hawaiian islands unseen. As the rats, hosts for disease-carrying fleas, made their way deeper into the city, people started to fall ill. On December 12, 1899, the first case was confirmed. The Board of Health then quickly thought of ways to prevent the disease from spreading even further inland. Their solution was to burn down any buildings in Chinatown suspected of containing a source of the disease. On December 31, 1899, the board set the first fire. They had originally planned to burn only a few targeted buildings, and thought they could control the flames as each building was finished, but the fire got out of control, burning down untargeted neighboring buildings. The resulting fire caused many of Chinatown's homes to be destroyed and an estimated 4,000 people were left homeless.[23]

Australia suffered 12 major plague outbreaks between 1900 and 1925 originating from shipping.[24] Research by Australian medical officers Thompson, Armstrong and Tidswell contributed to understanding the spread of Yersinia pestis to humans by fleas from infected rats.[25]

In 1994, a plague outbreak in five Indian states caused an estimated 700 infections (including 52 deaths) and triggered a large migration of Indians within India as they tried to avoid the plague.

In 1994 and 2010 cases were reported in Peru.[26] In 2002, a couple from New Mexico was diagnosed while vacationing in New York City.[27] In 2010 a case was reported in Oregon, United States.[28]

In 2012, cases were reported in Oregon and Colorado,[29][30] including a 7-year-old girl who contracted Bubonic plague while camping in southwest Colorado.[31]

In September 2012 a herdsman in China (Sichuan province, Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture) was reported to have died of the disease after finding a dead marmot and eating it.[32]

In 2012 there were 256 plague cases resulting in 60 dead in Madagascar and in October 2013 the ICRC warned that prisoners there were at a high risk and warned of the risk of an epidemic.[33]

In July 2013, following routine testing in and near Los Angeles, CA., health officials publicly confirmed that a squirrel had tested positive with bubonic plague in the Angeles National Forest near Wrightwood. As a precaution, portions of the area have been closed to camping. However, pedestrian traffic through the area continues. Hikers are advised to use insect repellent and ensure that any pets they may bring wear a flea collar.[34]

In August 2013, a boy died in Kyrgyzstan after being bitten by a flea, thought to be from an infected rodent. The bite occurred in the Sary-Dzhaz gorge on Lake Issyk-Kul's southern shore.[35]

In December 2013 there was an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in a village in Madagascar.[36]

Biological warfare

Some of the earliest instances of biological warfare were said to have been products of the plague, as armies of the 14th century were recorded catapulting diseased corpses over the walls of towns and villages to spread the pestilence.

Later, plague was used during the Second Sino-Japanese War as a bacteriological weapon by the Imperial Japanese Army. These weapons were provided by Shirō Ishii's units and used in experiments on humans before being used on the field. For example, in 1940, the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service bombed Ningbo with fleas carrying the bubonic plague.[37][38] During the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials, the accused, such as Major General Kiyashi Kawashima, testified that, in 1941, some 40 members of Unit 731 air-dropped plague-contaminated fleas on Changde. These operations caused epidemic plague outbreaks.[39]

See also


  1. ^ Haensch, Stephanie; Raffaella Bianucci, Michel Signoli, Minoarisoa Rajerison, Michael Schultz, Sacha Kacki,, Marco Vermunt, Darlene A. Weston, Derek Hurst, Mark Achtman, Elisabeth Carniel, Barbara Bramanti (September 2010). "Distinct Clones of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death". In Besansky, Nora J. PLoS Pathogens 6 (10): e1001134. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1001134. PMC 2951374. PMID 20949072. Retrieved 16 November 2010. "We confirm that Y. pestis caused the Black Death and later epidemics on the entire European continent over the course of four centuries. Furthermore, on the basis of 17 single nucleotide polymorphisms plus the absence of a deletion in glpD gene, our aDNA results identified two previously unknown but related clades of Y. pestis associated with distinct medieval mass graves. These findings suggest that plague was imported to Europe on two or more occasions, each following a distinct route. These two clades are ancestral to modern isolates of Y. pestis biovars Orientalis and Medievalis. Our results clarify the etiology of the Black Death and provide a paradigm for a detailed historical reconstruction of the infection routes followed by this disease." 
  2. ^ Felipe Armesto (2007). The World History Volume 2:The Revenge of Nature: Plague, Cold, and The Limits of Disaster In The Fourteenth Century. New Jersey: Pearson, Prentice Hall. p. 451. 
  3. ^ Bowsky, William (1971). The Black Death: A Turning Point in History?. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. ISBN 978-0-03-085000-4. 
  4. ^ Bridbury, A.R. (1983). Economic Growth: England in the Later Middle Ages. Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-24066-9. 
  5. ^ Inglesby TV, Dennis DT, Henderson DA, et al. (May 2000). "Plague as a biological weapon: medical and public health management. Working Group on Civilian Biodefense". JAMA 283 (17): 2281–90. doi:10.1001/jama.283.17.2281. PMID 10807389. 
  6. ^ "Plague". Healthagen, LLC. Retrieved 4/1/11. 
  7. ^ "Plague, Laboratory testing". Health Topics A to Z. Retrieved 23 October 2010. 
  8. ^ "Plague". Retrieved 25 February 2010. 
  9. ^ "Plague". Healthagen, LLC. Retrieved 4 April 2011. 
  10. ^ a b Echenberg,Myron (2002). Pestis Redux: The Initial Years of the Third Bubonic Plague Pandemic, 1894–1901. Journal of World History,vol 13,2
  11. ^ Little (2007), pp. 8–15.
  12. ^ McCormick (2007), pp. 290–312.
  13. ^ a b Moorshead Magazines, Limited. "The Plague Of Justinian." History Magazine 11.1 (2009): 9–12. History Reference Center
  14. ^ Cohn, Samuel K.(2002). The Black Death: End of a Paradigm. American Historical Review, vol 107, 3, pg. 703–737
  15. ^ Sean Martin (2001). Black Death:Chapter One. Harpenden,GBR:Pocket Essentials. p. 14. 
  16. ^ Name *. >. "(2013)"The Black Death"". History.com. Retrieved 2013-11-14. 
  17. ^ Name *. "Mee Jr, Charles L. (2011). "The Black Death, a bubonic plague of great dimensions-part 2." Word Focus". Wordfocus.com. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  18. ^ Name *. "Mee Jr., Charles L. "The Black Death, a Bubonic Plague of Great Dimensions – Part 2 | WordFocus.com."Wordfocus.com | English Vocabulary Words Derived from Latin and Greek Prefixes | Etymology. Web. 02 Dec. 2011". Wordfocus.com. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  19. ^ Sean Martin (2001). Black Death: Chapter Two. Harpenden, GBR:Pocket Essentials. p. 26. 
  20. ^ Reaching Out: Expanding Horizons of Cross-Cultural Interaction
  21. ^ Discovery News Website, retrieved on December 6, 2011
  22. ^ "Hawaii for Visitors, retrieved on December 6, 2011". Hawaiiforvisitors.com. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  23. ^ "The Honolulu Advertiser, retrieved on December 6, 2011". The.honoluluadvertiser.com. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  24. ^ "Bubonic Plague comes to Sydney in 1900". Sydney Medical School – Online Museum. University of Sydney. 2012. Retrieved 2 August 2012. 
  25. ^ Thompson, J. Ashburton (1901). "A Contribution to the Aetiology of Plague". The Journal of Hygiene (London) 1 (2): 153–167. doi:10.1017/S0022172400000152. PMC 2235949. PMID 20474113. 
  26. ^ "One Dead from Plague in Northern Peru". Laht.com. Retrieved 24 November 2011. 
  27. ^ "When the plague came to New York". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-12-03. 
  28. ^ Nogueras, David (1 October 2010). "Rare Case Of Bubonic Plague Shows Up In Lake County". News.opb.org. Retrieved 24 November 2011. 
  29. ^ Jo Adetunji (2012-06-15). "The Guardian Newspaper, retrieved on June 15, 2012". Guardian. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  30. ^ Jackson, Allison (2012-09-06). "Bubonic plague in Colorado: 7-year-old contracts disease while camping". Alaska Dispatch. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  31. ^ "girl recovering from bubonic plague". FoxNews. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  32. ^ "GlobalTimes.cn". GlobalTimes.cn. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  33. ^ "Madagascar bubonic plague warning". BBC. 2013-10-10. Retrieved 2013-10-10. 
  34. ^ Suzanne Kianpour (2013-07-26). "BBC News - Plague-infected squirrel shuts Los Angeles park". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-10-01. 
  35. ^ "Bubonic plague kills boy in Kyrgyzstan". The Telegraph. 2013-08-27. Retrieved 2013-08-27. 
  36. ^ "Madagascar village hit by bubonic plague". Bbc.co.uk. 2013-12-10. Retrieved 2013-12-11. 
  37. ^ Japan triggered bubonic plague outbreak, doctor claims
  38. ^ A timeline of World War II, Scaruffi Piero. Prince Tsuneyoshi Takeda and Prince Mikasa received a special screening by Shirō Ishii of a film showing imperial planes loading germ bombs for bubonic dissemination over Ningbo in 1940. (Daniel Barenblatt, A Plague upon Humanity, 2004, p.32.)
  39. ^ Daniel Barenblatt, A Plague upon Humanity., 2004, pages 220–221.


Further reading


  • Alexander, John T. (2003, 1980). Bubonic Plague in Early Modern Russia: Public Health and Urban Disaster. Oxford, UK; New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515818-0. OCLC 50253204. 
  • Carol, Benedict (1996). Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-Century China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2661-2. OCLC 34191853. 
  • Biddle, Wayne (2002). A Field Guide to Germs (2nd Anchor Books ed.). New York: Anchor Books. ISBN 1-4000-3051-X. OCLC 50154403. 
  • Little, Lester K. (2007). Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-84639-4. OCLC 65361042. 
  • Rosen, William (2007). Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe. London, England: Viking Penguin. ISBN 978-0-670-03855-8. 
  • Scott, Susan, and C. J. Duncan (2001). Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations. Cambridge, UK; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-80150-8. OCLC 44811929. 
  • Batten-Hill, David (2011). This Son of York. Kendal, England: David Batten-Hill. ISBN 978-1-78176-094-9. OCLC http://www.tsoy.co.uk.