Monday, April 29, 2013

Yersinia Pestis--ICD-9 078.2

“I know that man is capable of great deeds. But if he isn't capable of great emotion, well, he leaves me cold.”

You have to be living under a rock not to have heard of Yersinia pestis but you probably know it by another name:  The Plague or the Black Death. 
Yersinia pestis is a bacterium found in rodents and their fleas.  According to the CDC, Y. pestis infects an average of 5 to 15 people in the United States a year.  The World Health Organization reports anywhere from 1000 to 3000 cases a year. 
There are three types:
  • bubonic--characterized by painful, swollen lymph nodes
  • pnuemonic--characterized by high fever, cough, bloody sputum, and difficulty breathing
  • septicemic--characterized by fever and GI symptoms
Y. pestis is treatable by current antibiotics, but delay in seeking treatment and in diagnosing can be fatal.  In the U.S. 14% of Y. pestis cases result in death.  50-60 % of untreated bubonic plague and nearly 100% of untreated septicemic plague is fatal.
Plague is a word meaning any worldwide calamity, especially seen as divine retribution, as in the Egyptian plagues described in the Bible.  It also can mean any epidemic, usually fatal, disease. The Plague usually indicates the one believed to be caused by Y. pestis.  In the 1300's The Plague spread throughout Europe, killed anywhere from 50 to 250 million people.  This is the Black Death that most are familiar with.  There were actually three major pandemic episodes:
  • The Justinian Plague beginning in 541 a.d. and spanning over 200 years, killing up to 100 million people in the Mediterranean basin, virtually all of the known world at that time.
  • The Black Death--beginning in 1334 in China and spreading to Europe by traders and soldiers, killing over 60% of the European population.
  • The Modern Plague--beginning in China in the 1860's. (what's with China and all these pests?)  In the 20 years it spread, scientists discovered the bacteria, where it came from, and how to stop the spread.  Go Science!

How about some Fun Facts about that wild and crazy Yersinia?
    Plague Doctor
  • Yersinia pestis is huge, measuring in at 1.2 microns in length. That's like 0.000047244 inches, for us Americans, or one millionth of a meter.
  • The swollen node in bubonic plague is called a bubo, not to be confused with Bilbo, a character in the Hobbit, and LOTR (incidentally a movie in which Sean Bean dies)
  • Cats are highly susceptible and are a common source of human transmission through bites, scratches, coughing, and of course, fleas.  Dogs aren't so susceptible, but still can get sick.  So the answer? Get a fish. 
  • In the 1300's the Plague was thought to be punishment from God on sinners, or by the Jews to destroy Christians.  This quote from The Plague comes to mind:  “stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves”  ― Albert Camus, The Plague  (not that Christians haven't had their share of blame for things)  
  • The nursery rhyme Ring Around the Rosy is thought by many to describe the progression of infection and death from the plague. Just what are we teaching our children?
  • There is an upside to the pandemic.  Due to high labor shortages people had to get creative resulting in economic, social, and technological advances, helping to usher in the Renaissance.  Funny what happens when there's no FEMA or government interference.
  • Cologne was first used in the 1300s to cover up the smells from not bathing or changing clothes, which was common practice because it was thought to be a sign of vanity inviting more wrath from God and opening pores so bad air could enter and exit the body and spread disease.  Brittany Spears or Justin Bieber would probably kill or scare it away. 
  • Many TV shows and movies have used the Plague as a plot device, including NCIS, in which Agent Tony DiNozzo was infected with a letter laced with the Plague.  Everyone got to wear cool hazmat suits.  (SWAK, season 2, episode 22)
  • In the 2010 movie Black Death, Sean Bean would've died from the Plague if he hadn't been ripped apart by horses first. Oh, what?  You can't possibly think I spoiled the movie for you.  I mean, it's not if he's going to die, but how.  I must say, I wouldn't have guessed quartered.
  • Many doctors believed that bad smells could drive out the plague. As a result, some of the treatment for the disease included dung and urine, as well as other ingredients that were more likely to spread disease than to cure it. Once again, I refer back to Justin and Brittany. That acutally might have worked.
  • The Plague, by Albert Camus, has some interesting quotes and really is an interesting novel.
  • Yersinia is an interesting word.  I'm looking for someone naming their kid that.  I mean, people already call their kids pests, right? 
“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”
Albert Camus, The Plague


  1. Wow I didn't know the scientific name for black death, as well as a bunch of stuff you mentioned here, so thanks for the fun facts!

  2. I learn something new everyday. Black death is so creepy...

  3. More than I ever wanted to know, but still glad to know it. I love your humor. "Get a fish."

  4. Instant points for the plague shout out. (I was a medieval history major in college, so plague is sort of a thing.)