The Black Death Today

It’s not every century that you get a disease that wipes out 60% of a continent’s population, but that’s exactly what The Black Death did to Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. According to this letter written by a clergyman to his friends, “The contagious nature of the disease is indeed the most terrible of all the terrors (of the time), for when anyone who is infected by it dies, all who see him in his sickness, or visit him, or do any business with him, or even carry him to the grave, quickly follow him thither, and there is no known means of protection.”

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Pieter Bruegel’s 16th century “The Triumph of Death” depicts the devastating effects of The Black Death on Europe. Source: National Geographic

The Plague was such an incurable epidemic that priests, doctors, and loved ones would refuse to see those infected, breaking social ties and leading to an overwhelming despair over Europe. We learn about The Plague in school, intrigued by the symptoms and widespread effects. Then we move on, thankful that we don’t have to deal with it in our modern times, except we do.

In the United States in 2015 alone, there have been fifteen cases of bubonic plague, four of which were fatal, according to CNN. Most of the cases have been in southwestern states like Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, but one case was reported in Michigan in September. It is said that the person had recently traveled to Colorado before returning to Michigan with the disease. Other countries with tropical climates see more cases of The Black Death, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had over 10,000 cases from 2001 to 2009. The reason for this is that those climates are perfect for fleas. The disease is transmitted by fleas that lived on infected rodents, as it was in the medieval times. The symptoms remain the same, with swollen lymph nodes as a prominent indicator of bubonic plague. However, other symptoms are synonymous with those of the flu, so many people disregard it as an everyday virus.

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Source: CNN

So, how are we not dying like the medieval Europeans? We can thank modern medicine. If caught early enough, the disease is treatable with antibiotics or antimicrobials. We also have better living conditions and better hygiene than medieval Europeans did, and we don’t welcome rodents into our homes that have been scurrying across fields.

Why should we care as Minnesotans? The Black Death still exists today, and in our own country. Just like the reported case in Michigan, someone could contract the disease in a southwestern state and end up in Minnesota. Of course, the disease today is nothing like it was during the historical epidemic that killed millions. That’s made clear by the difference between the clergyman’s letter and CNN’s reporters. However, they talk about the same disease, and it’s important that we’re aware of its prevalence. If you travel to Colorado and get flu symptoms, don’t rule out the possibility of The Black Death.

Julie Rodriguez

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