"Black Death" Could Return, Study Warns

The recurring plagues known as the “Black Death,” which decimated medieval peoples, could return in modern times as antibiotic-resistant forms of of the virus have emerged, a study warns.

These tougher strains are raising “serious concerns,” according to the study, published in the March issue of the journal Infection, Genetics, and Evolution.

The findings were announced on March 15 as archaeologists unearthed a “Black Death” grave in London, containing more than a dozen skeletons of people suspected to have died from the plague. The victims are thought to have died during the 14th century and archaeologists anticipate finding many more as they excavate the site.

The plague is a highly contagious disease affecting the lungs. Population levels suffered globally due to the plague, with around 75 million people globally perishing during the 14th century Black Death, according to researchers. The plague has returned episodically in recent decades, although, thanks for modern medical care, fatalities have not surpassed a few dozen in any recent outbreak.

The new study analyzes the Great Plague of Marseille, which caused 100,000 deaths between 1720 and 1723.

“It is quite instructive to revisit the sequence of events and decisions that led to the outbreak,” wrote the author, Christian Devaux of the Center for Pathogenic Agents and Health Biotechnologies in Montpellier, France.

“Although the threat was known and health surveillance existed with quite effective preventive measures such as quarantine, the accumulation of small negligence led to one of the worst epidemics in the city (about 30 percent of casualties among the inhabitants),” he wrote. “This is an excellent model to illustrate the issues we are facing with emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases today and to define how to improve biosurveillance and response tomorrow.”

“The risk of plague dissemination by transport trade is negligible between developed countries,” he added, but “this risk still persists in developing countries. In addition, the emergence of antibiotic resistant strains of Yersinia pestis, the infectious agent of plague, is raising serious concerns for public health.” Genetic change has also made the bacteria better able to live in mammalian blood, he wrote.

In the April issue of the journal Clinical and Experimental Immunology, researchers with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Salisbury, U.K. note that work is underway toward a vaccine for plague.