The Black Death

Australia’s first case of bubonic plague was re­ported in Jan­uary 1900.

Australian Geographic - - Geobuzz -

BUBONIC PLAGUE, or the ‘Black Death’, as it be­came known dur­ing the pan­demic of the 17th cen­tury, is one of the most deadly diseases to which hu­mans have ever been ex­posed.The dis­ease is caused by the bac­terium Yersinia pestis, which in­fects the ori­en­tal rat flea ( Xenop­sylla cheopis), which in turn in­fects a host, usu­ally the black rat ( Rat­tus rat­tus). Black rats of­ten live close to hu­mans and feed on stored pro­duce such as grain.The fleas move from rats to hu­mans who be­come in­fected by

Y. pestis when the fleas bite.

The bac­te­ria move quickly from the bite site into the lym­phatic sys­tem, caus­ing acute in­flam­ma­tion of the lymph nodes. As the nodes break down, tox­ins spread through the body caus­ing mas­sive haem­or­rhag­ing in in­ter­nal or­gans, dis­colour­ing the skin – hence the name Black Death.

The three worst bubonic plague pan­demics are among the great­est nat­u­ral dis­as­ters of all time.

In 541AD the plague ar­rived in Con­stantino­ple (now Is­tan­bul) – then the world’s largest city – pos­si­bly car­ried north from the Su­dan up the Nile aboard grain ships, and then across the Mediter­ranean Sea.

Dur­ing the fol­low­ing year, the plague killed 40 per cent of Con­stantino­ple’s pop­u­la­tion and even­tu­ally a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion of the east­ern Mediter­ranean. It spread across Europe, reach­ing Eng­land by 664. Fre­quent smaller out­breaks oc­curred across Europe un­til 750 when the dis­ease dis­ap­peared.

In 1348, how­ever, plague erupted again in Europe, when Ge­noese soldiers re­turn­ing from the Crimea un­know­ingly trans­ported Y. pestis back to Italy.

Plague spread rapidly across the con­ti­nent and was most vir­u­lent be­tween 1348 and 1356.The pan­demic be­came the dead­li­est event in hu­man his­tory, killing a quar­ter of Europe’s pop­u­la­tion. It con­trib­uted to the end of the feu­dal sys­tem in Europe be­cause there were no longer enough peas­ants to work the es­tates. Civic ad­min­is­tra­tion sep­a­rated from the Church, and sci­en­tific in­quiry was stim­u­lated in an at­tempt to un­der­stand the dis­ease.

The third pan­demic be­gan in China in 1855. By 1894 it had reached Hong Kong, with 100,000 deaths re­ported that year. In 1896 it spread to In­dia and in 1899 Nouméa in New Cale­do­nia was de­clared a plague-in­fected port.

Aus­tralian au­thor­i­ties were acutely aware that it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore the dis­ease reached the con­ti­nent.The first case was that of Arthur Paine, di­ag­nosed on 19 Jan­uary 1900. He was a de­liv­ery man at Sydney’s Cen­tral Wharf where ships car­ry­ing in­fected rats would have docked.

By the end of February, 30 cases had been re­ported and there were con­cerns the colony was on the brink of an epi­demic.

Au­thor­i­ties in­sti­tuted a three­p­ronged re­sponse: the quar­an­tin­ing of in­fected in­di­vid­u­als at Sydney’s North Head; in­ten­sive clean­ing and de­mo­li­tion of parts of Sydney’s in­ner city; and a rat ex­ter­mi­na­tion pro­gram.

In the first nine months of 1900, 1759 peo­ple were quar­an­tined, of whom only 263 were con­firmed as cases of plague.

Lime, car­bolic wa­ter and lime chlo­ride were used to dis­in­fect dwellings, and all waste mat­ter was burnt.The gov­ern­ment paid two pence per rat de­liv­ered to an in­cin­er­a­tor on Bathurst Street. More than 108,000 rats were killed by gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees.

The plague con­tin­ued to reap­pear an­nu­ally in Sydney un­til 1910, with cases also pop­ping up in Queens­land, Mel­bourne, Ade­laide and Fre­man­tle. In to­tal, 1371 cases were re­ported with 535 deaths across the na­tion.

Australia’s co­or­di­nated re­sponse to the plague out­break was in­stru­men­tal in prov­ing the im­por­tance of pub­lic health and mod­ern, sanitary ur­ban­plan­ning prin­ci­ples in con­trol­ling the spread of in­fec­tious diseases.

Pro­fes­sional rat­catch­ers pose for a photo with their haul in the docks area of Sydney, c.1900. The gov­ern­ment paid a bounty of two pence per dead rat.

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