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It's hard to believe the Black Death killed off half of Europe's population in the Middle Ages.

The term Black Death originates from dark hemorrhages under the skin and the victims' blackened extremities.

Many people do not realize it started in China in the 1330's and spread westward along the "Silk Road" - the major trade route from the East.

One popular account describes a fleet of Genovese trading ships fleeing warfare in Asia Minor.

When they reached the Italian city of Messina locals found ships with no one alive and consequently, looters unknowingly spread the disease.

What remains a question is which microbe is responsible for Black Death. A long held theory points to bubonic plague which is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. It can be spread by fleas that feed on infected rats and these fleas in turn infect humans. The infection spreads quickly and once the bacteria gets to the lungs, can be spread by coughing and sneezing.

But there are several problems with this theory. Forensic tests consistently fail to identify Yersinia pestis DNA in tissue from exhumed victims. Plus the spread of the disease does not follow seasonal patterns for flea and rodent borne illnesses.

Alternative theories include one from 1984 suggesting this epidemic was caused by pulmonary anthrax.

Then, in 2001 British epidemiologists pointed to more likely culprit - an Ebola-like virus with a long incubation period allowing for the rapid spread of the disease over large distances.

What if a similar epidemic happened today?

We'd like to believe we're prepared but consider the 1918 flu epidemic which killed 20 million world-wide and what about the avian flu lurking in Southeast Asia…

Could this be the next devastating epidemic we face?

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A first hand account by one witness of the Black Death as it struck Italy.
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This site is a college course in European history from ancient times to the early modern era, offered by Dr. E.L. Skip Knox through Boise State University. His section covering the Black Death is quite comprehensive.
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For a discussion about the possibility that the plaque was not caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterium, but may have been a virus.
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A in depth series of articles that talk about the Black Death and the various theories as to its cause including mentions of anthrax and viruses.
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The use of modern DNA technology to identify the pathogen in victims of the Black Death has been described in an article entitled "Suicide PCR Identifies Yersinia pestis DNA in Black Death Victims."
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