Plague of Justinian and Its Cousin the Black Plague Could Return

Image: Plague of Justinian and Its Cousin the Black Plague Could Return Re-enactors recreate a scene showing a funeral during the Black Death, Malta

Wednesday, 29 Jan 2014 07:07 AM

By Michael Mullins

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The Plague of Justinian, believed to have wiped out half the world's population in the 6th century AD, is one of two strains of the same plague that researchers say could lead to future disease outbreaks. The other strain is the Black Death.

The Black Death devastated medieval Europe killing between 75 and 200 million Europeans some 800 years after the Plague of Justinian.

Researchers were able to connect the two pandemics by reconstructing a genome of bacteria belonging to the older of the two diseases which they obtained from a small bit of DNA found in the teeth of two German victims who were killed by the Plague of Justinian approximately 1,500 years ago.

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They concluded the Plague of Justinian was caused by a strain of Yersinia pestis, the same pathogen responsible for the Black Death that struck medieval Europe, the Associated Press reported.

On Tuesday, the study was published online in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

"What this shows is that the plague jumped into humans on several different occasions and has gone on a rampage," Tom Gilbert, a professor at the Natural History Museum of Denmark who wrote an accompanying commentary, told the AP. "That shows the jump is not that difficult to make and wasn't a wild fluke."

Researchers found that in most cases rodents were responsible for the spread of the plague having often transported fleas that carried the bacteria responsible for causing the disease.

According to Gilbert, the possibility that another strain of the same plague might cause an outbreak is great, considering "humans are [now more than ever] infringing on rodents' territory."

However unlike in past centuries, modern day antibiotics will likely limit the impact and scope of such plagues when they eventually come about, according to scientists.

"Plague is something that will continue to happen, but modern-day antibiotics should be able to stop it," said Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Center at McMaster University in Canada, who led the new research.

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According to Poinar, approximately 200 rodent species are carriers of the plague that in addition to humans also affects animals.

The greatest fear that scientists have is that future versions of the plague will become airborne and could potentially, depending on the strain, kill a person within 24 hours of becoming infected. Such diseases could become airborne if the bacteria reaches the lungs and its droplets are spread by coughing.

The best chances of preventing future outbreaks is through monitoring rodent populations across the globe, according to Poinar, who added, "if we happen to see a massive die-off of rodents somewhere with (the plague), then it would become alarming."

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