Bubonic Plague making a comeback?

Nathan Turoff, Critter Column

Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get any worse, a squirrel tests positive for the Bubonic plague. For those of you unfamiliar with the Bubonic plague, it is a bacterial plague that is spread mainly by fleas. It can be spread through other animals, especially rodents, and it can be deadly to humans.

The Bubonic plague is iconic for incurring one of the most infamous pandemics in world history: The Black Death. The Black Death was extremely deadly in its time, killing 50 million  people in Europe in only 5 years during the medieval times. For comparison, smallpox killed 300 million worldwide over the course of the entire 20th century. 

Photo by Nathan Turoff.

Last week, a Colorado squirrel tested positive for Bubonic plague. You would think this is worthy of significant concern – However, it is not anything to lose any sleep over.

The Bubonic plague, unlike viruses such as COVID-19, is bacterial, not viral. Other examples of simple bacterial diseases are Strep throat and Pneumonia. One major difference between bacterial and viral infections is how they are treated. Viruses usually require a specific vaccine or cure to successfully combat them. Bacteria, on the other hand, can be easily treated by simple antibiotics, which are relatively easy to obtain, and have been for almost 100 years. Another major difference is that bacteria are much simpler than viruses structurally, and rarely mutate, so they are very easy to predict and counteract.

There’s a reason the last major pandemic of Bubonic plague was in the middle ages. Epidemiologists and historians both unanimously agree that the reason that the plague was so bad back then was for several different reasons – none of which are applicable to our current society. They included:

  • Little understanding of how diseases work.
  • Modern antibacterials had not been discovered yet.
  • Disgusting and incredibly unsanitary living conditions, including but not limited to: No centralized trash management system, horrible hygiene standards, and no indoor plumbing.

Those types of disgusting and inhumane conditions on which bacterial diseases flourish are not found today in modern America. The Bubonic plague sprouts up every now and then, but modern living conditions and medical knowledge make it unlikely to pose a real danger on us today.


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