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Rats and fleas and a deadly disease

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Callie Jones

By Bystander

In the summer of 1563, exactly 450 years ago, an epidemic of bubonic plague killed 20,000 Londoners, or about a quarter of the city’s population.

London was no stranger to the plague. Although there had been no reported deaths for four years, the city had been ravaged by periodic outbreaks ever since the 1348–50 Black Death pandemic, which may have killed more than half the population of Europe.

Believed to have originated in the Far East, plague was probably carried to Europe by fleas on the black rats that infested merchant ships. Not surprisingly, it was particularly prevalent in rat-ridden slums. But even the smartest London areas were filthy by modern standards, and the disease was no respecter of class.

The bacterium Yersinia pestis is the cause of plague. Symptoms include grossly inflamed lymph nodes (buboes), high fever, convulsions and delirium. If that is as far as the disease progresses, then survival prospects are about 50 per cent. But if it spreads to the lungs (pneumonic plague) or the blood (septicaemic plague) then horrific death occurs within hours.

Since the Elizabethans had no idea what caused the plague, treatment in 1563 was purely symptomatic, with various herbs used for headaches, stomach pains and lung problems. Bleeding, a general therapy for any illness, was also employed.

During epidemics physicians would often dress in outlandish cover-all clothing, including robes, boots, gloves and bizarre masks. Although they would not have known that this garb afforded some protection from flea-bites, empirical observations presumably indicated that it was a sensible precaution.

Over the next century, London was to endure another five major epidemics, each wiping out at least a sixth of the population. Between outbreaks, the disease persisted in a milder endemic form. The final Great Plague, in 1665–66, killed about a fifth of the city’s inhabitants.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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