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Pandemic - From the plague to the corona virus

Pandemic - From the plague to the corona virus


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Pandemics - Part 1: Black Death

Pandemics are epidemics, more precisely infectious diseases that spread across national borders or even across continents. They differ from an epidemic in that it is local. Conversely, this does not mean that all regions in the area of ​​a pandemic must be affected. The World Health Organization (WHO) today determines whether an epidemic will become a pandemic.

"And see, the whole country was full of dead, which prose can not record and also no verse: From India and Cathay to Morocco and Spain that crowd had filled the world up to the mountain slopes." (Petrarch, founder of humanism, in " Triumph of Death ”over the plague wave, which fell victim to his wife Laura in 1348)

Global mobility - also for viruses and bacteria

Today, these diseases, which affect millions of people in many countries, can spread much faster than ever before in human history - this is what we are experiencing with the corona virus. The reason for this is global air traffic in a globalized society.

While the plague of the Middle Ages spread from the Black Sea to Italy via Genoese ships and occupied large parts of Europe from there, air travelers have been carrying the corona virus across the oceans at lightning speed since the 1980s, SARS 2002/2003 and today.

Why is Corona spreading so quickly?

Prof. Dr. Josef Settele from the World Biodiversity Council and Vice President of the Sustainable Research Institute (Seri) in Cologne says that people today are increasingly breaking down the barriers between host animals of pathogens and humans. A pandemic epidemic would have been foreseen, just as many dead.

There are probably other pathogens that would have even worse effects than the current corona virus. Habitats of animal species would be destroyed, which in turn would lead to high population densities in some species and thus more contact with humans. The surviving species are increasingly forced to share their habitat with humans.

According to Prof. Settele, humans are also penetrating ever new areas and thus encountering new animal species against whose viruses there is no immune defense. Market suppliers, breeders and customers of the animal markets are even more likely to become infected with new pathogens. The vast majority of pathogens have not even been discovered. Therefore, the outbreak of the corona pandemic comes as no surprise.

Pandemics - The Scourges of Humanity

Plague waves, i.e. pandemics, are one of the greatest horrors in human history and have therefore already found their way into the earliest written records. They fertilized the early religions, which saw such punishments of angry gods in such mass extinctions, caused the downfall of cultures and shook great empires.

They shuffled the cards and changed fundamentally human societies: Without measles, smallpox and flu, which killed 90 percent of the natives of America, the Spaniards, Portuguese and later British and French could never have conquered the continent in this form. America would be more indigenous today, just as India, which was also colonized, is Indian. In Europe, the great plague wave in the late Middle Ages led to the greatest migration and resettlement since the Migration Period 800 years earlier.

The "Antonine Plague"

From the heyday of the Roman Empire, the "Antonine Plague" has survived, which plagued the Roman Empire in Europe and Asia for 24 years and probably cost the lives of five million people. Their outbreak is well documented: Roman legionaries looted the city of Seleukia-Ktesiphon, the capital of the Parthian Empire in what is now Iraq. Immediately afterwards, an illness broke out in them, which almost always resulted in death.

It has been extensively documented among civilians in Nisibis on the Syrian-Turkish border, then in Smyrna and Ephesos in what is now Turkey, and in Europe the plague quickly spread to Britain. She followed the trade routes and soldier streets, especially the legionaries who brought them back from the campaigns in the Middle East to their camps in the European Mediterranean. The first city in Europe to be ravaged by the "plague" was Athens, and a year after it appeared in Mesopotamia, it had reached the metropolis - Rome.

Galenus, the personal physician of the Roman emperor Mark Aurel, immediately fled to Pergamon in the northwest of today's Turkey, but returned to a military camp on the Danube on Mark Aurel's orders. The disease was particularly severe in Italy and on the Iberian Peninsula. According to Cassius Dio, 2000 people died in Rome every day, one in four fell ill. The plague migrated from Italy to the Danube and from there to the Rhine. The tax lists of the Roman Empire also show that 25 to 30 percent of the sick died.

From 170 AD the number of deaths decreased, presumably many people had become immunized by now. But it flared up regionally again and again - until the 180s. In 180 AD Mark Aurel allegedly died of the "plague" - but this is controversial among historians. The term "plague", Latin pestismeant epidemic. It wasn't the lung or bubonic plague. Today we assume that it was probably a form of smallpox.

The Justinian plague

A plague raged in 541: the first center was the Red Sea in Egypt, then it raged in Alexandria, the most important port in the southeast of the Mediterranean, and spread from here to North Africa and the Eastern Roman Empire. A year later, the plague had reached Constantinople, then one of the largest cities in the world.

A year later, people died in Syria, Palestine, Armenia, Italy and Gaul (France), later she even spilled over to Britain. Seafarers brought the plague bacillus across the Mediterranean to Illyria, Tunisia, Spain and Italy, from Arles to the center of France and what is now Bavaria.

In Constantinople, it claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The epidemic calmed down in 544, then broke out again in 557 in Antioch, then again in Constantinople, in Ravenna, in Istria and Liguria, and 570 in the valley of the Rhone. It has now been clearly proven that it really was the plague - the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

Bubble and lung plague

As already mentioned, the Latin word is called pestis Plague, and this could denote various diseases in Roman antiquity. In the case of bubonic plague, the lymph nodes swell first on the neck and armpits. If the bacteria collect in the blood, they can trigger a lung plague. Affected people could survive the bubonic plague if the suppurated "bumps" were cut open quickly. The lung plague led directly to death.

The plague and the Roman Empire

This pandemic is called the Justinian plague because it fell under the reign of Emperor Justinian I of Ostrom (482-565). Their scope and impact are controversial. Many historians assumed that the plague depopulated entire regions of the Eastern Roman Empire, prevented the reconquest of the Western Roman Empire, which had fallen to Germanic tribes in the 5th century, prevented agricultural production in Constantinople and the epidemic caused the Muslims to reach the richest provinces a few decades later of the Byzantine Empire like apples fallen from the tree.

The latest historical research and archaeological findings paint a different picture. Historian Peter Heather discusses that the plague in Constantinople killed an awful lot of people, mass graves had to be set up in outskirts, and corpses filled the lower floors of towers.

While so many people died in rural areas that labor shortages and far higher wages had to be paid to agricultural workers, there is no evidence that the economy, general prosperity and trade have been disrupted to any great extent.

The Black Death

"The Black Death" was nameless terror. Those who were infected noticed that the lymph nodes swelled. Rash followed, dizziness, chills, intense pain, some spat blood. Death came on the same day, as long as the lungs were affected, and sometimes the three of them remained. A chronicler who lived in Orvieto stated succinctly: "One morning you were healthy, the next already dead." (Bernd Roeck in "The Morning of the World: History of the Renaissance")

A bacterium like a nuclear war

In the 7th and 8th centuries there were repeated outbreaks of pests, in the high Middle Ages the plague disappeared from Europe - until today it is not clear why. 1347 returned Yersinia pestis again, and this outbreak was worse than anything that humans had experienced in the past centuries: about a third or more of Europeans died within three years, and then the maps on the continent were completely reshuffled.

The historians Sournia and Ruffié write: "Given today's conditions, one would have to compare their rage with a global nuclear war."

The Black Death on the Black Sea

The Mongols brought the Golden Horde Yersinia pestis with itself that has lived among rodents in the steppes of Asia since ancient times. They besieged 1347 Kaffa, a Genoese colony on the Black Sea. The siege failed because more and more Mongols died of the plague. The dead catapulted the Mongols over the walls of the fortress, and here the plague claimed more and more deaths in a few days. The surviving Genoese fled towards Italy on their galleys and soon arrived in Messina.

The plague affects Europe

The plague came to Europe. A priest wrote that "the seamen carried an illness in their bones that affected anyone who only spoke to them, so that they could in no way escape death." The disease came from Sicily to Pisa, reached Genoa, then Sienna, then Florence. In Florence, pits had to be dug in order to stack the bodies of the corpses in layers until they were filled to the brim.

The Austrian historian Egon Friedell (1878-1938) wrote that black death, as contemporaries called the disease, did not spread rapidly like other epidemics, but slowly but inexorably - from house to house, from country to country. The epidemic affected Germany, France, Great Britain and Spain, then Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, later Iceland and even Greenland.

Pandemic as God's Wrath

People in the 14th century were helpless against the plague because its cause was unknown. Sometimes a planetary constellation should be responsible, then bad air, then the wrath of God. “The epidemic was considered a god's punishment for a world that seemed to be out of joint,” says Bernd Roeck.

In order to appease God, flagella trains traveled across the country, religious fanatics who believed that whipping themselves was the true sacrament because their blood was mixed with that of Jesus Christ. They were joined by arms and adventurers, criminals and desperate people. And these clusters spread the bacterium in their services, infected themselves and others.

The empty country

Large parts of the elite died in the trading cities of Italy, and the Medici family replaced them in Florence. Streets, monasteries and villages were neglected, survivors plundered and fled, fields and vineyards overgrown to a large extent, as archeology confirms on the basis of pollen findings.

The historian Siegfried Fischer-Fabian explains: “The grain fields had dried up in the stalk, the cattle in the pastures were decaying, the soil was vacant, the supplies had been used up. There were no reapers, no shepherds, deserted yards everywhere, desert eggs. ”

Jewish pogrom and plague parties

“Suddenly there was a rumor in the south of France that the Jews had poisoned the wells and, faster than the plague, penetrated the neighboring countries. There were hideous slaughterings of Jews, in which the Geißler formed the shock troop […] ”(Egon Friedell)

The self-flagellation was followed by the search for supposedly guilty parties. The mob identified Jews, lepers, Sinti and Roma as well as “magicians” as “guilty”, destroyed their houses and burned them alive. The lawyer Gabriele de Mussis claimed that "terrible snakes and toads have announced the calamity in China". While the flagellants tortured themselves to grace God, others fell into the opposite. Like today's organizers of "corona parties", they gathered, got drunk and filled their bellies.

Death and madness

“It (the plague) left deserted cities where the corpse-fire stank to the sky, abandoned villages, on whose farms wolves and wild dogs lived, rivers and lakes, where plague victims floated with bloated bodies; Vagabonders wandered the country roads, the horror had confused their minds, ”writes Fischer-Fabian.

In three years, around a third of Europe's people died, possibly half, according to Roeck. Contemporary Jean Froissart said "A third of the world died". According to Fischer-Fabian, 25 to 30 percent of the people in Europe died in the German Reich around two to three million. The Great Plague Wave, which reached Italy and all of Europe from the Black Sea in 1347, was a cross-continent pandemic. It also raged in China, where in 1352 80 percent of the people died in Schansi province and around 70 percent in Hupeh province.

Unpredictable horror

Its spread was unpredictable, according to Fischer-Fabian: "It left entire areas untouched, skipped individual streets within the cities, returned years later and raged even more relentlessly among those whom it had spared." The reason for this "strange thing “Lies in the way the plague spread to people. The bacterium brought rat fleas to humans, and wherever infected rats met humans, the plague broke out.

After the great plague wave from 1347 to 1350, the plague broke out regionally again and again for around 100 years. Chronicles tell of a "great death on the Rhine", of the "plague in Prussia", "ten thousand die in Nuremberg" or "great pestilence in the seaside towns".

The plague shuffles the cards

As a result of the plague, Europe's societies changed immensely. Labor was scarce and farmers often enforced favorable conditions. Knights became robber knights and raided traveling merchants from their castles. Uprooted men hired themselves as mercenaries who killed for money - the era of condottieri, the paid professional killers, began in Italy.

The few artisans who were still alive were paid for their rarity, went on strike effectively, and forced higher wages. Previous hunger sufferers moved into the orphaned homes of rich citizens.

Where did the plague arise?

The Black Death, the plague wave in the middle of the 14th century, probably originated in Central Asia - Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. Over there Yersinia pestis in wild rodents, and local outbreaks of pests among the pastoral nomads there have been known since ancient times. However, these never became pandemics among the steppers, as the tribes of the locals did not live together in crowds in a confined space.

It is possible that the wild rodents transmitted the plague to rats in the trade centers and the rat flea thus moved from Mongolia to Persia, Constantinople and Europe in the network of the Silk Roads. That would explain the Justinian plague, because Constantinople, where the plague raged most, was considered the queen of the cities on the crossroads of the world and was the western end of the Silk Road.

With the camel caravans and ships, the plague bacteria could easily move from East Asia to North Africa and Western Europe. In addition, the Mongols, Genghis Khan and his successors, brought in the plague when they conquered their empire, as evidenced by the 1347 outbreak of peses, the first proven breeding ground for which were the Mongols of the Golden Horde.

Constantinople, which firstly dominated the Bosphorus, the only sea connection between Asia and Europe, and secondly, through Asia Minor, the land bridge to the Balkans, was exactly the bottleneck through which anyone who wanted to go from Asia to Europe had to go. So it is anything but a coincidence that Yersinia pestis today's Istanbul devastated.

The horseman of the apocalypse

In the plague pandemics of the 6th and 14th centuries, people knew nothing about bacteria. When the Black Death from the Black Sea entered Europe, some doctors believed that bad winds from Asia had brought the plague, others blamed gases from inside the earth, and still others the position of the planets. As a result, protection against the plague was pointless: sometimes people should avoid standing water, sometimes the windows only open to the north, so that the wind did not get in.

Ointments with ingredients such as toad spawning or spider eggs were in circulation, some refrained from pork - others ignited frankincense, myrrh and sandalwood. The fleas didn't mind that much. Religious ideas soon came to the fore - after all, pestilence was one of the horsemen who announced the apocalypse, and they did not see believers as a metaphor.

Angelica and deadly cherry

Without knowing the causes, people poked in the fog. To think she was "stupid" would be extremely presumptuous. The doctors knew the symptoms and consequences of pestilence very well, and they developed various methods to protect against infection and to alleviate the symptoms. As medicinal herbs against the plague, they used, for example, the common juniper, small bibernelle and medicinal angelica.

The doctors treated the plague bumps with the black belladonna. Bumps were cut open, rinsed with boiled water and washed with salt, and also cleaned with herbal ointments. In fact, it is possible to stop the bubonic plague at a very early stage by cutting and washing out the bumps before the bacteria spread throughout the body.

It was suspected that the disease was contagious. After the outbreak in Messina, ships coming from there had to be quarantined for forty days. The plague nevertheless spread, and that seemed to contradict the correct assumption that the disease spread from person to person. The rats and their fleas did not prevent quarantine - they ran ashore via the rope and brought death.

Pandemics - experience and education

The Great Plague, however, advanced medicine. Hippocrates' theory of juices, according to which an imbalance in juices caused disease, was questioned. Because too many had seen again and again that people fell ill who had contact with the sick. Around 1500 the assumption finally prevailed that illnesses are triggered by touch.

The plague also ensured tighter hygiene. Soap to disinfect spread. The fight against rats and fleas was increasingly taken seriously, and rat catchers became a recognized profession.

The Little Ice Age - The climate and the flea

New studies show what influence the climate in Central Asia had on pes outbreaks in distant Europe. According to this, there were outbreaks of pests when the favorable climate in the Asian steppes had led to an increase in rodent populations and their fleas around 15 years earlier and then deteriorated rapidly. If the rodent populations affected by the plague bacteria now collapsed, the fleas had to look for alternative hosts.

Camels are easily infected by flea bites, and the fleas then travel with the camels on the silk roads through the caravan stations, where they in turn jumped onto rats. The European merchants then met trade travelers from Asia in port cities - and the flea hopped from continent to continent.

It is not clear why Yersinia pestis had so much worse effects in the 14th century than in the time of Justinian, in which it was shown that even the agricultural production of the Eastern Roman Empire was not in serious danger.

The drop in temperature in Europe since the 14th century, known as the "Little Ice Age", offers a clue: the temperature dropped on average by several degrees Celsius, the summers became cool and rainy, the large rivers froze in winter, and the glaciers grew into the valleys. In the High Middle Ages, however, farmers had harvested figs on the German Rhine.

The biologist Josef H. Reichholf shows connections that had a fatal effect. The climate cooled quickly in the first years of the 14th century, at least faster than people had developed adequate heating systems.

The rat (Rattus norvegicus) had mainly lived outside in the warm period - in the trash piles of the city ditches or in the dirty streets. It was getting too cold outside, especially in winter, and she pushed out the smaller house rat (Rattus rattus) in the attics and moved into the basement and vaults.

The house rat, which hardly came into contact with the outside world, posed little danger. But rat rats roamed both outside and inside, were the hosts of the flea infested with the plague bacteria on the ships, and they came into the houses from outside. People could not really heat and therefore put on several layers of clothing, ideal for fleas.

They also stayed inside much more than in the warm period. They only had pine shavings and candles as lighting, but that was not enough to chase the rats away, especially on the long winter nights. In addition, the population had quadrupled in the past 350 years, and people lived in close quarters in the poor areas.

The Chinese plague

There have been plague epidemics in countries in which the plague bacterium was endemic to rodents throughout the modern period, sometimes with 30,000 dead in Cairo, sometimes with 100,000 dead on the coast of China, then again in Istanbul. The third and final plague pandemic after the Justinian plague and the Black Death of the late Middle Ages broke out in China in 1894, in the Hunan and Canton areas, i.e. regions where Yersinia pestis in rodents is endemic. These transmitted the pathogen to humans through fleas, and the disease reached Hong Kong.

It was here that the plague was finally discovered, which has taken its great horror today. The 31-year-old Swiss-French doctor Alexandre Yersin identified the bacterium in Hong Kong on June 20, 1894 as the causative agent of the disease. When he arrived in Hong Kong on June 15, he wrote: “I see many dead rats lying on the floor. The rats are certainly the real spreaders of the epidemic. ”The fleas were soon unmasked as the actual carriers.

Yersin cut a bump out of a plague dead and examined the tissue under a microscope. He wrote: “I made a preparation in no time and put it under my microscope. At first glance, I see a real mush of microbes that all look the same. ”He had discovered the cause of black death, that of him Yersinia pestis was called.

However, Yersin was unable to change the spread of the plague in 1894. Instead of camels as before, the rats and fleas now traveled around the world on steamships. The plague spread from China to India and Southeast Asia. In 1896, she claimed countless lives in Singapore and Bombay. In the years thereafter she reached Sydney, San Francisco, Honolulu, Vera Cruz, Lima, Asuncion, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Alexandria, Cape Town, Portugal and Scotland.

The worst hit was Bombay. The Indians were tolerant of rats, and the poor lived in the metropolis in a confined space. The high temperature and high humidity ensured that the fleas reproduced well. Pilgrims were traveling en masse and the centers were connected to the railroad. In 1896, Bombay quickly recorded 2,000 deaths and was quarantined.

Yersinia pestis came to America very late and anchored in the USA with prairie croissants. In Australia it broke out during the great pandemic after 1900, Yersinia pestis but never settled here permanently - presumably this is due to the lack of endemic rodents as a reservoir. In total, the last major plague pandemic claimed around 12 million victims worldwide, most of them in China, India and Southeast Asia.

The plague today

By Yersinia pestis The bubonic plague that our ancestors feared more than any other disease is no longer an apocalyptic danger. A plague pandemic, and even a major regional plague epidemic, is unlikely today: bacteria, fleas and rats are combated, and even after the outbreak, the disease is not a death sentence if it is recognized early. The bacteria can be combated well with antibiotics - with agents such as streptomycin, gentamycin, tetracyclines or chloramphenicol. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

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