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Wikipedia- Black Death
PBS: Secrets of the Dead- Mystery of the Black Death
Plague & Public Health in Renaissance Europe
Insecta-Inspecta: The Black Death
MiddleAges.Net- The Black Death:Bubonic Plague The Black Death, 1348
Boise State University: The Middle Ages- The Black Death
Plague.htm (great resource sheet!)
Wikipedia- Bubonic Plague
Black Plague Simulation (great for teachers!)
Buboes on Human Skin
Yersinia pestis bacterium with a florescent antibody dye

What is the black death?
The black death is an vector-borne infectious disease that is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It is characterized by fevers, vomiting, chills, diarrhea, and the formation of black boils (called "buboes") in the armpits, neck, and groin areas. These boils appear black in color because of the dried blood which fills them from the victim's internal bleeding; this is where the disease gets its name. Occasionally some black death victims have the bacterium spread to the lungs, causing them to fill with bloody liquid (not unlike tuberculosis). This derivation of the disease is called pneumonic plague, as opposed to the bubonic plague wherein the lungs are not affected. There is also a version called septicemic plague, which is characterized by bleeding into the skin (which creates black patches) and other organs, as well as by bite-like bumps that are generally red and sometimes white in the middle. People who die from this form of plague often die on the same day symptoms first appear. The black death works similarly to the HIV/AIDS virus- it takes control of white blood cells and uses them as fuel for replication.

How is it passed?
The Yersinia pestis bacterium inhabits the bodies of fleas that live on rats. Not snuggly, pretty, cuddly, friendly, domesticated rats like you find in pet stores, but the nasty ones in sewers and behind garbage cans or out in fields. When these fleas bite a human, the bacterium is passed into the human's bloodstream and infection begins. In the case of pneumonic plague, it can be passed from person to person via an airborne route, just like tuberculosis and the common cold. This form of the plague is almost always lethal. In bubonic plague, the disease can be passed when the buboes ooze pus or through other bodily purges such as the vomiting or diarrhea. Occasionally it is also passed via an infectious animal carcass, though this is a little more difficult.

If I'm infected, am I contagious?
Those with the pneumonic plague are indeed VERY contagious. They can pass it from person to person with a sneeze, a cough, even a hearty laugh. Those with the bubonic form of the plague are contagious as well (see the previous section), but with the advent of antibiotics in the modern age the bubonic form of the plague can be completely cured- anyone believing they have the disease should seek aid from their local center for disease control immediately.

Are there any other names for the Black Death?
Yes. It is also known as the black plague and the bubonic plague. Some of the older names include "the Great Pestilence", "the Great Mortality", and "Pest" (a name which is commonly thought to refer to the term "pestilence" or the pest-like nature of the disease).

Are there any last words on the Black Death?
"Ring around the rosey
a pocket full of poseys
achoo! achoo!*
we all fall down"
*sometimes "ashes! ashes!"

This wasn't simply an innocent children's rhyme. It was a warning of symptoms and a description of preventative measures, as well as a guage of life in plage-era Europe. The first line refers to the symptoms of septicemis plague, the round red bumps (occassionally with white centers) certainly were a "ring around the rosey". Pockets (now more commonly referred to as drawstring pouches) were stuffed with pleasant-smelling flowers and held to the nose; in the times before bacterial and viral infections were understood, it was thought that bad smells carried ill humors and poisons for the body... hence, smelling good smells could keep you safe from illness. The third line, whichever variant you use, is either the sneezing of those with the pneumonic plague or that towns often had to burn bodies, because there was no place to bury people. The final line in this nursery rhyme is also the final knell for those with the plague. Before antibiotics, unless you were part of the percentage of the population that was either immune or didn't come into contact with the bacterium, you would indeed fall down- dead!

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