The Plague: It was the Gerbils

Aug. 7, 2015

By Medical Discovery News

In the past 800 years, many things have been blamed for the plague that swept through Europe in the Middle Ages: the alignment of the planets, bad air, lack of proper hygiene, black rats, and their fleas. Now scientists have data that suggests the climate in Central Asia at that time influenced the size of the great gerbil population, which triggered cycles of plague in Europe. These furry little rodents carried the plague bacterium, as did the fleas that fed on them. When the gerbil population shrank, the fleas found alternate hosts like horses, humans, and eventually rats, which then made their way to Europe and triggered the plague pandemics.

The plague was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It is transmitted to humans through the bite of a flea that has fed on an infected rodent. Plague outbreaks have afflicted humans for thousands of years and changed the course of history. The first recorded plague pandemic began in 541 and was named the Justinian Plague after the 6th century Byzantine emperor. Frequent outbreaks for the next 200 years are likely to have killed over 25 million people. The second pandemic, called the Great Plague or the Black Death, began in China and spread westward along trade routes to Constantinople and into Europe. About 60 percent of Europeans died, eliminating entire towns.

The third pandemic, or Modern Plague, also began in China and spread to Hong Kong by 1894. Rats hitching rides on steamships spread the plague to port cities around the world for the next 20 years, killing about 10 million people. By then scientists were able to identify the bacterium responsible and how it spread. Efforts to control the rat population eventually ended the pandemic. It continued to infect people (although in much smaller numbers than before) during the 20th century, such as in Vietnam during the war. The bacterium is still in the reservoir of wild rodents, and today most cases of plague are in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. The plague can be effectively treated with common antibiotics, but if left untreated it has a high mortality rate.

Since there are still lots of rats in Europe, some wonder, why is there no plague? Researchers proposed that each time, the plague actually started in Asia. To test their theory, they examined climate records using the rings of trees. The incidence of plague did not correlate with climate changes in Europe, but it did with changes in Asia. It was already known that the Asian great gerbil carries Yersinia pestis, and when the weather in Asia was good, gerbils thrived, but when it turned bad, their population would crash. Then their fleas would seek another host such as human traders and their pack animals, who spread the plague to other parts of the world. They found no evidence that rodents in Europe carried Yersinia pestis, so that would explain why cases of the plague disappeared between pandemics.

So don’t worry about the little gerbils in the pet store – they are not carrying the plague.

For a link to this story, click here.

%d bloggers like this: