Australia, along with the rest of the world, has endured a rough couple of years. We’ve all been affected by COVID one way or another – some on a minor level through lockdowns and toilet paper shortages, others on a major scale through job losses, serious illness and loss of life.
Those affected only marginally can take a somewhat positive perspective on events if you look back at some of the pandemics of the past, such as Europe’s Black Death which ravaged the continent in the late 1300s. It killed more than 50 million people during two waves.
Many can take a glass-half-full approach to COVID with a self-reassuring ‘Well at least it isn’t the bubonic plague’, but consider this – the bacterium that caused the plague still exists.
It goes by the scientific name of Yersinia pestis. Far from being a mere pest, as that name might suggest, Y. pestis remains a threat to world health when it’s allowed to flourish and spread.
The way it does that is through rodents – rats and mice, marmots, gerbils, ground squirrels and the like.
But so long as the circulation of Y. pestis remains within those rodents, it is no cause for human concern.
It is when Y. pestis ‘breaks ranks’ and crosses over into humans that we are faced with potential disaster. And that still happens from time to time. A recent example was in 2017 in Madagascar. An infected man boarded a bus in the country’s central highlands and travelled to the eastern city of Toamasina via the capital Antananarivo.
He infected dozens of passengers before dying in transit. The resulting outbreak infected 2348 people and caused 202 deaths before it petered out.
Madagascar is, of course, a long way from Australia. And we can take further heart from the fact that although there are what are known as ‘zoonotic reservoirs’ of Y. pestis in Europe, Africa, Asia and both Americas, it has not reached Australia.
Of course, with international travel much more common than it was 500 years ago, the odds of it making our shores has lessened. Another contributing factor across the globe is the human intrusion into previously underdeveloped or completely untouched lands, where we come into closer contact with those zoonotic reservoirs.
And there is the very real prospect that Y. pestis could develop antibiotic resistance.
Texas Southern University’s Jason Rosenzweig says: “Most infections are still fairly treatable, but if a drug-resistant strain becomes an issue, not just locally but even globally, that scenario could potentially be grim.”
Work is being done on new and more effective vaccines against Y. pestis, but progress is slow because plague is not the ‘flavour of the month’ with the world focusing on COVID.
“Funds are limited; resources are limited,” says Professor Rosenzweig. “Like other pathogens that could become an issue, pestis is not a pressing issue all the time. It breaks onto the scene, does some damage, scares people, disappears, and then people tend to forget about it.”
Let’s hope it’s not completely forgotten about before it’s too late.
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