Tuesday, November 25, 2014

2014 Outbreaks: Plague Edition

This is the time of year where you are supposed to feel thankful for all the things you have in your life, whether its family, friends, stability, purpose, faith, or maybe even physical things. But, honestly, this year has been hard to feel truly thankful, scientifically speaking. There's been a lot of distrust, a lot of fear-mongering, and a lot of really terrible journalism that has made people (primarily Americans) really hate any scientist (or doctor, or medical professional) that isn't Neil DeGrasse Tyson. But guess what: we aren't lying to you, and we are doing the best we can to figure things out thoroughly and efficiently. Funding is at an all time low, support for major research is very political, and there is a surplus of newly graduated PhDs that aren't being utilized. Science is simultaneously really hard and really amazing right now.

Now that I've said all that, we can focus on what's happening right now in science: the plague.


You may remember learning about the bubonic plague in middle school, when your history classes were covering the middle ages, and it was the perfect time to talk about disease in science class (because let's face it, the middle ages were gross). I'm guessing you learned about it and immediately let yourself forget about it because you figured "well, that's over and done with so I'm safe."

Surprise! Approximately 40 people have died from the plague in Madagascar this month, and there have been approximately 120 cases reported.

But, look, this isn't shocking. In 2012, I even wrote about how there was a confirmed plague case in a rodent in Los Angeles. But, it is shocking in the sense that we haven't seen anything near "outbreak" proportions since the middle ages (and you have public health to thank for a majority of that!).

Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes the plague, is most often (not really often, per say) seen in animals, and is rarely transmitted to humans anymore. The middle ages were different, though. Animals (and fleas!) lived in very close quarters with families. Since hygiene wasn't really a fad yet, diseases like the plague would spread incredibly rapidly. In some countries, 50% of the population was wiped out.


There are three different forms/presentations of the plague:
  • Bubonic plague, which is transmitted by fleas and causes bulbous swelling ("buboes") around the lymph nodes
  • Pneumonic plague, which is respiratory, and spreads between humans via aerosolization and contact with fluids
  •  Septicemic plague, which is an infection of the blood
The bubonic plague can be treated with antibiotics, but pneumonic plague is incredibly deadly. In some incredibly severe cases, it can kill you after only 1 day of infection (not including the incubation period).
I am particularly nostalgic for the plague because it was the first real disease that caught my attention. Not only do I remember becoming completely infatuated with diseases, but I still have the report I wrote about the plague in 7th grade. Maybe if you really hope for it, I'll scan it and post it for you to laugh at. Tis the season for miracles, after all... right?

So, while you are sitting around, eating ridiculous amounts of food, try to be thankful for the advancements that have been made in science and health. If you have access to potable water and a waste treatment system, then you should be extra thankful. If you've had access to education, whether you've taken advantage of it or not (no judgement either way), then be overjoyed. Think of all the things that have changed since the middle ages, and be thankful.


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