THE JURY IS OUT: RATS ARE INNOCENT
That is, of spreading the Black Death all throughout Europe and Asia. For centuries, the deservedly maligned rats were the suspects in spreading the Black Death. This is because even, the rats live in filth. They were the easy scapegoat for this disease.
The Black Death, also known as the Great Plague, became widespread during the 14th century and is said to be one of the most destructive pandemics in history. It virtually wiped out most of the earth’s population, killing from 75 million to 200 million people from 1337 to 1335. It actually took almost two centuries before mankind would recover from this decimation. As one eyewitness wrote in his journals: “Realizing what a deadly disaster had come to them, the people quickly drove the Italians from their city. But the disease remained, and soon death was everywhere. Fathers abandoned their sick son. Lawyers refused to come and make out wills for the dying. Friars and nuns were left to care for the sick, and monasteries and convents were soon deserted, as they were stricken too. Bodies were left in empty houses, and there was no one to give them a Christian burial.” Another observer said about 200 bodies were being buried each day due to the plague.
Such was life during the time of the Great Plague.
The role of rats in spreading the plague
It is true that for plague cases that happened from the 1800s up to the early 2000s, rats have played a role in the spread of plagues, according to the National Geographic. How did it happen? The bacterium Yersinia pestis is said to cause the plague. If the Y. pestis bites a rat, the rat will become infected, and so would the parasites attached to it. If the rat dies, the fleas would transfer to another victim, and may actually latch on to humans and bite these humans.
Due to this process, scientists figured that the Great Plague was transmitted this way. Thus, we see so many documentaries and books telling us that rats were the source of the said plague.
On the other hand, some historians, in particular, those from the University of Glasgow, said that the Great Plague may have spread through another way. Historians argue that the Great Plague spread very rapidly, It was spread much faster as compared with modern plagues. The rats did not die off at that sat a rate. Historically, multiple rat deaths precede plagues.
Due to this lack of evidence, historians are looking into other possible causes of the Great Plague. And the most likely source points to fleas as the culprits. According to National Geographic, “The patterns in how disease moves through a population are different from the rat-flea and human-parasite modes of transmission.” Early studies have shown evidence that the human-parasite model best suit the mortality records acquired than the rat-flea model.
More tests are being done to confirm such theory, as this totally changes the conventional wisdom about the Great Plague.
How the Great Plague happened
The Great Plague started in China when an outbreak was recorded to have happened there in the early 1330s. China at that time was already a major trading partner for several countries, so it was only a matter of time when the plague would start to spread into other countries. Italian merchant ships in 1347 returned from the Black Sea, and when the ships docked in Italy, several of those on board were already dying from the plague. It spread rapidly and claimed lives at a frightening speed. That same year, the disease spread to as far as England. There, people called it the “Black Death” because of the black spots found in patients. The Great Plague affected the way people lived, and damaged institution way beyond repair. People lived for themselves, even leaving behind sons and daughters to die alone, as they did not see any cure after all. Bodies were simply dumped in the streets, causing more diseases. The lucky ones get buried in mass graves.
At this time, doctors were powerless. There was simply no cure. The great minds of the day suggested many ways to fight it. Some suggested to try a certain posture when sleeping; special diets were tried; some recommended burning of aromatic woods and herbs; others lived behind closed doors and lived as a recluse; the rich used medicines made of gold and pearls. Doctors could only give support and boost morale.
Nothing could stop the plague, and it killed millions.
Signs and symptoms of the Black Plague
Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian writer, and poet wrote an eyewitness description of the symptoms of the Black Death. Here is how he described it:
“In men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumors in the groin or armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg. From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavacciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. “
Modern plague symptoms are the following:
Bubonic plague – Patients develop fever, chills, weakness, headache, and swollen lymph nodes. If not treated with the right antibiotics, the bacteria can spread into other parts of the body.
Septicemic plague – Symptoms are fever, abdominal pain, weakness, chills, and shock. It is possible that the patient may have bleeding skin and organs. Skins on the nose, fingers, and toes may turn black.
Pneumonic Plague – This comes from the untreated bubonic or septicemic plague, and is the most fatal form of the disease. Fever, weakness, headache, and pneumonia with shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, and bloody or watery mucus. It can also be spread from one human to the other via infectious droplets.
Fleas live by feeding on blood from their hosts. They feed on the blood of any warm-blooded body, which is why their favorite hosts are dogs, rats, and cats. Their hosts can either be birds or mammals. The adult fleas grow about 3 mm long, brown in color, and their bodies are flattened sideways. They have 6 legs and have antennae. Their size ranges from 1 / 12 to 1/ 6 inches in length. This body shape of theirs enables them to move through their hosts’ feathers or fur. Though they do not have wings, they are excellent jumpers and that skill enables them to jump from one host to another. They have great legs really designed for jumping – only the froghoppers can jump higher – and mouthparts designed for sucking blood. Fleas, as we now know, are very high health risk parasites.
Fleas can transmit disease. The Great Plague is now attributed to the fleas’ disease-transmitting capabilities.
Flea life cycle
Like most insects, fleas begin life as an egg. The egg takes two days to hatch. An adult female lays her eggs on her host, but at times the eggs fall off and they hatch on different areas of your house. She can lay as much as 40 eggs a day. After the eggs hatch, it becomes a larva. They are tiny and look like worms. This stage lasts for 5 days. It then gets into a cocoon, then finally they become adult fleas.
A fully developed flea will only emerge from the cocoon once it has a host it can jump on. A female flea can lay eggs after 1 to 2 days of that meal. After laying the eggs, then the whole cycle begins again.
How to get rid of fleas
Contrary to what most people think, the plague is not a medieval age problem. Cases are still being reported, albeit now doctors know a way to treat it. But as they say, prevention is better than treatment, and prevention means getting rid of fleas. Here are some ways to prevent a flea infestation from your homes:
- Vacuum your house. Pay attention to those areas underneath your furniture.
- Wash all beddings in hot water. After washing, dry using the highest heat setting to kill the fleas.
- Use diatomaceous earth and sprinkle around the house. Diatomaceous earth inflicts several tiny cuts on the fleas’ bodies, making them bleed to death. You can buy this from your local garden supply stores.
- Get a piece of lemon and thinly slice it. Put it into a pint of water then boil. Pour into a spray bottle. Spray it on flea infested areas.
- Use a broom and sweep the floor. You may catch some eggs this way.
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