Bugged To Death

Oriental Rat FleaAlthough we might be giants in a bug’s world, their impact on us is not always small. In fact, an insect’s interactions with us can sometimes result in permanent consequences on not only a human’s health, but on their life as well. And once in a great millennium, the devastation is not felt by just one individual, but by entire populations.

The Black Death was one such instance where anywhere from one third of the entire population to, by some estimates, sixty percent of Europe was wiped out by a mere flea. As a result, this tiny insect changed the entire course of human history. No small feat by any standards. Perhaps some amount of acknowledgment should be given to creatures often dismissed as insignificant, due to their stature. As evidenced by The Plague and other decimation to species by insects, size does not always matter.

Let us take a closer look at the little pest that caused so much trouble in Europe, the Oriental rat flea.

It was thought by historians, that this flea piggy-backed a ride on rats who found their way onto merchant ships departing from Crimea, a port of call along The Silk Road. From there, nearly every port in the Mediterranean became infected with fleas carrying the bubonic plague. The disease quickly spread throughout Europe, nearly wiping out entire villages, debilitating cities and entire kingdoms. Death was almost guaranteed, as there was no effective treatment.

Unfortunately, Europe’s one major defense against rats was being systematically eradicated due to the religious hysteria and bias created by the Inquisition. Cats were believed to be the Devil’s tool, a witch’s familiar, especially if the cat was black. And anyone who owned a cat was under suspicion of being a witch. Guilt by association meant death was nearly as certain as The Plague itself. Therefore, cats were killed as fast as people could find them. As a result, the rat populations boomed and spread disease at a rate faster than cities could bury their dead.

Let’s say you were one of the unfortunate who contracted the plague. What treatments were available to you. Better yet, were your chances of survival greater if you refused treatment? Perhaps. Here are a few so-called cures:

The swellings associated with the Black Death should be cut open to allow the disease to leave the body. A mixture of tree resin, roots of white lilies and dried human excrement should be applied to the places where the body has been cut open.

The disease must be in the blood. The veins leading to the heart should be cut open. This will allow the disease to leave the body. An ointment made of clay and violets should be applied to the place where the cuts have been made.

Interestingly enough, it isn’t the bite of fleas that causes the spread of the bubonic plague. The real cause is flea vomit. By 1914, scientists had discovered that the Oriental rat flea also falls victim to the very disease it carries in it’s guts. Due to a build-up of the bacteria in the digestive tract, the poor flea cannot swallow anything more and must regurgitate the blood of its host as it feeds. This blood becomes infected and makes its way back into the bloodstream of the rat, or human, as was case in most of Europe.

You may think that because of more rational thinking in our modern day, better sanitary conditions and the advance of effective medicines, that the bubonic plague has been completely eradicated. But it simply is not the case. The Plague still exists and continues to cause death around the world, although the likes of the pandemic of the 1400’s have not been seen again and likely never will. It is interesting to consider that the fate of the world was once carried on the back of something as small as a flea.

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