Monday, 19 January 2009

Return of the Black Death

Reports today that the “Black Death” – bubonic plague – has broken out in a training camp for al-Qaeda insurgents in Algeria. The disease, which swept through Europe and Asia starting in the early 1330’s, was perhaps the biggest disaster in human history, wiping out around a third of the population in the areas it attacked. It reached Britain in the summer of 1348, allegedly first appearing at Melcombe Regis in Dorset.

With death rates at this level, it is hardly surprising that many people thought they were witnessing the end of the world. A dying Irish monk compiled an account of the epidemic, saying he had written it just in case “any man survive.” Nowadays some scientists question whether the Black Death was actually bubonic plague, and argue it may have been some other viral infection.

Whatever the truth of that, the plague lives on. In 2006, an outbreak claimed at least 50 lives in the chaos of the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and there are fears it may soon appear in Zimbabwe.

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