The Black Death Has Shut Down a City in China, and Struck 4 People in Colorado – and That’s Just This Month.

Yes, that Black Death, also known as The Bubonic Plague, or simply “the plague,” has hit Yumen, a city of about 30,000, in NW China this month. On 16 July it killed a 38 year old man and as a result health authorities had to quarantine 150 other people. They also sealed off Yumen by setting up police roadblocks around its perimeter, stopping people from going in or out. China Central Television announced that the city has enough rice, flour and oil to supply all its residents for up to one month.

This is the same plague that was responsible for one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, causing the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people, peaking in Europe in the years 1346–53, killing 30–60% of its population and reducing the world population from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million. All of which explains China’s swift response.

Unfortunately, the plague has not been relegated to the history bin nor is it confined to northern China. In Eastern Colorado, for example, at the beginning of the month, 4 adults were infected by the plague. They are believed to have contracted it from a single source, a dog, who died from it.

Since 1957, 60 human cases of the plague have been identified in Colorado alone, and 9 were fatal. Although human cases occur infrequently, the plague is severe and potentially life-threatening if not quickly treated with antibiotics.

The following graphics show us the extent of the problem at home and abroad:

So both the good news and the bad news is the same: antibiotics are needed to treat bacterial-based diseases such as the plague. The reason this is bad news is that our world leaders in health — e.g., the World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New England Journal of Medicine — have sounded the alarm on the growing global crisis of antibiotics resistance. The Lancet puts it this way: “[W]e are at the dawn of a post antibiotic era,” with “almost all disease-causing bacteria resistant to the antibiotics commonly used to treat them. In other words, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, like the proverbial time bomb, are poised to wreak infectious havoc on a worldwide scale.

The global nature of the pathogen problem can be seen in the graphic below. Notice, though, it under-represents the problem because, for example, it doesn’t include current or recent epidemics such as C. difficile and MRSA in the US, Ebola in West Africa, not to mention the recent appearance of the plague.

Now imagine life without antibiotics – what then? Scientists warn us that even the 14th century plague bacterium could develop drug-resistance and become a major health threat. In 1995, for example – before the global development of antibiotic resistance – a new multi-drug-resistant form of the plague was found in a 16-year-old boy in Madagascar. The strain developed resistance to 8 antibiotics including streptomycin and tetracycline.

We don’t know which one (or more) of the multitude of microbes that live among us will develop resistance and become a runaway pathogen: who, for example, would have ever guessed the plague pathogen?

What the authorities are telling us, however, is that our 70 year old antibiotic shield has been permanently pierced. Leading organizations such as the Harvard School of Public Health also agree on the one thing above all else that we, the people, need to do: it is this.

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