H1N1 (Swine Flu), Avian Flu and even standard influenza have emerged as modern specters of epidemic, but if scientists are correct, humanity has one less worry on the infectious disease front.
The spread of the bubonic plague- also known as Black Death- was likely exacerbated by conditions in the 14th century, including famine, war and weather. Between 30% and 60% of Europe’s population at the time is believed to have succumbed to the disease as it made its way across the continent in the mid 1300’s.
In a study termed “elegant” by University of Michigan medical historian Dr. Howard Markel, scientists at McMaster University in Ontario indicate they believe they’ve solved at least one of the mysteries surrounding the causative agent behind the deadly outbreaks. Hendrik Poinar, a biological anthropologist at the university, says that 100 samples from exhumed bodies of plague victims have revealed the pandemic’s culprit- although other strains cannot necessarily be ruled out. Poinar says:
“The Black Death was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis — the one responsible for current plague outbreaks. This settles the controversy surrounding the causative agent. Although we cannot rule out, at this stage, that there was another co-circulating strain.”
Markel said the study’s results were impressive- but that further work is needed given the scope of the pandemic and the number of outbreaks through history. He indicated more research was needed to augment the findings:
“The follow-up is clearly to get more plague genomes, from other outbreaks, to compare them across both space and time.”
But while the original strain is long dead, researchers like Merkel say that modern equivalents will continue to plague humanity, adding that science will never “really conquer germs, we just wrestle them to a draw at best.”