Medicine

Rats May Not Be to Blame for Spreading 'Black Death'

Rats May Not Be to Blame for Spreading 'Black Death'

Between its first devastating outbreak in the 14th century, and finally fading away by the 1800s, the plague caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium sent millions of Europeans to early graves.

Still, Sood said, there's one "drawback" in the new study's logic: Where did the human fleas and lice contract Yersinia pestis to begin with? They created three models for each city, based on rats, airborne transmission and human-based fleas and lice. A new study, however, has suggested it was more likely to be fleas and body lice carried by humans, meaning we might all owe rats a big ol' apology.

The Black Death claimed an estimated 25 million lives, more than a third of Europe's population, between 1347 and 1351.

But the speed of the Black Death's spread doesn't match with this pattern, and it may be the case that experts transplanted the mechanisms behind modern plague into medieval plague.

The new research is "ultimately challenging the assumption that plague in Europe was predominantly spread by rats", concluded Nils Stenseth, of the University of Oslo in Norway, and colleagues.

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"While it is commonly assumed that rats and their fleas spread plague during the Second Pandemic, there is little historical and archaeological support for such a claim", the researchers note in their study. Rats are also thought to be responsible for spreading more recent cases of plague, including the outbreak in Madagascar in 2017. In several of the nine models, the researchers discovered much greater consistency and similarities with the human-spreading model - an observation that backs the "human ectoparasite hypothesis" of the Black Death.

"Here, we show that human ectoparasites, like body lice and human fleas, might be more likely than rats to have caused the rapidly developing epidemics in pre-Industrial Europe". It's based nearly entirely on mathematical modelling, so it's showing a simulation of what might have happened, and not the real thing. Los Angeles had an outbreak of plague in 1924.Hide Caption 4 of 9 Photos: The California ground squirrel is highly susceptible to becoming infected with the plague and transmitting it widely to other squirrels. For example, the models in the current study did not account for local conditions that could affect disease transmission, such as war, famine, immunity and public health interventions, they said.

Ben Bolker, a mathematician and statistician from McMaster University who wasn't involved with the study, said he's unhappy with some of the statistical procedures used by the researchers.

So while the new result is interesting, it isn't almost complete.


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