A medieval scholar might begin an article or monograph trying to convey the horrors of the Black Death to his or her audience, and use the example of HIV/AIDS to give a modern audience an access point to the conversation, a way to relate. But because that plague had ended and we can measure the various impacts it had on society by looking back from our modern vantage point, the plague in medieval Europe could be a useful guide for those who were working on the effects of a modern epidemic that was still in progress.
AIDS and Vampires
Amusingly many, many theorists have a seen a link between the AIDS epidemic and the rise in popular culture of a fascination with all things vampire. To be sure, vampires had been around long before AIDS became a matter of international concern, but at the end of the 20th century, stories about supernatural, eternal creatures who were transformed through the sharing of blood seemed to be everywhere.
In the 21st century, with HIV/AIDS becoming a condition that was more and more treatable and much more likely to be something that one could maybe live with instead of die from, pandemic interest and discussion turned elsewhere. Especially in 2014 and 2015, discussion shifted toward Ebola.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever that is easily transmissible. It causes major organ failure, and has symptoms that include massive vomiting, diarrhea, and all-around agony. When Ebola was first discovered and named it was estimated to have mortality rates of around 90 percent.
The good news, of course, is that with intense treatment and extreme quarantine and isolation measures, the Ebola mortality rate dropped to something like 40 percent during the last part of the 2014 outbreak. The bad news, of course, is that the mortality rate is still around 40 percent, and the possibility of another outbreak remains.
On the other hand, while plague can now be treated with antibiotics and is not widespread, it still exists.
Superbugs, Antibiotics, Global Spread
While we have effective treatments, medical science has been sounding the alarm for some time now concerning what we do have in place. Antibiotics are losing their ability to fight certain diseases, especially those caused by so-called superbugs, and while the pharmaceutical industry has ramped up its efforts to find new therapies and medications, progress on that front is not as fast as we might hope.
And there’s always the possibility of bacterial mutation. In fact, the Black Death may still be around in part because, after its initial virulent outbreak, it mutated to become less deadly. After all, a pathogen that kills off most of the hosts it needs to survive is also threatening its own existence.
Thus, another mutation and transformation is always possible, and that mutation could go the other direction. Adding to this concern is the simple fact that the world is much more interconnected today than it was in 1348. Even then the plague had spread so quickly via sea travel and the movement of Genoese merchant ships through the Mediterranean.
Learn more about the plague’s first sustained appearance in Europe.
Modern Travel and Future of Pandemics
In October 2014, Thomas Eric Duncan travelled from Liberia to Dallas, Texas, to visit family who were living there. While there, he was diagnosed with Ebola, and two nurses who treated him at the hospital where he was admitted contracted the disease as well.
Before Duncan succumbed to the disease and died, officials in Liberia had threatened him with legal action if he ever returned to the country, as before he traveled out of the country, he had signed an affidavit affirming he had not had any contact with anyone who was known to have Ebola.
Further investigation revealed that Duncan had offered assistance to a sick woman while he was in Liberia, but that he hadn’t known that she had Ebola. Whether he had known or not doesn’t make difference—a signed piece of paper is not an effective guard against the spread of a disease.
This clearly demonstrates that what makes the other pandemics likely in our globalized society is not just the ease of travel itself. It is exacerbated by countries that suffer from political instability that have underdeveloped or weak economies and that lack modern medical and health infrastructures is the real problem.
Learn more about how the plague traveled by sea.
Plague: A Re-emerging Infectious Disease
Still, Ebola is not the Black Death. Ebola is a virus. The plague was bacterial. There are many other differences between the two. So why turn any attention away from the disease that has so recently caused so much death and alarm and focus again on a disease that seems to be relatively harmless if you treat it with antibiotics soon enough?
Well, given the concerns surrounding disease outlined above, and the fact that plague has recently been classified as a re-emerging infectious disease, it might be worthwhile to sit up and pay a little more attention. Not a ton, but as Michelle Ziegler put it in ‘The Black Death and the Future of the Plague’: “Sensationalizing the plague does not help us to deal with the reality of pandemics, but neither does the lack of attention given to plague in areas of the world that are often beneath our notice.”
Common Questions about Lessons Learned from the Black Death
With HIV/AIDS epidemic becoming a condition that was more and more treatable and much more likely to be something that one could maybe live with instead of die from, pandemic interest and discussion turned toward Ebola.
Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever that is easily transmissible. It causes major organ failure, and has symptoms that include massive vomiting, diarrhea, and all-around agony.
The plague remains a concern as it has recently been classified as a re-emerging infectious disease.