Could the Black Death plague us again?

Archaeologists working on the UK's largest infrastructure project uncover the skeletons. Photo / AFP
Archaeologists working on the UK's largest infrastructure project uncover the skeletons. Photo / AFP

As archaeologists excavate the remains of more than a dozen bodies of people suspected of dying from the Black Death unearthed this month in London, a new study claims human societies remain at risk of the plague.

A grave containing 13 people suspected of dying from the plague was discovered by workers on the £15 billion (NZ$27.5 billion) Crossrail project, archaeologists announced last Friday.

Up to 50,000 people may have been buried at the site in Charterhouse Square in Farringdon if it proves to be the location of a plague cemetery mentioned in ancient records.

The records refer to a burial ground in the Farringdon area that opened during the Black Death in 1348.

Over the past two weeks, the archaeologists have uncovered 13 skeletons in two carefully laid out rows 2.5 metres below the road that surrounds the gardens in Charterhouse Square.

"The depth of burials, the pottery found with the skeletons and the way the skeletons have been set out all point towards this being part of the 14th century emergency burial ground," said Jay Carver, Crossrail's lead archaeologist.

"This is a highly significant discovery and at the moment we are left with many questions that we hope to answer," he said.

"We will be undertaking scientific tests on the skeletons over the coming months to establish their cause of death, whether they were plague victims from the 14th century or later London residents, how old they were and perhaps evidence of who they were," Carver added.

The skeletons are being carefully excavated and taken to the Museum of London Archaeology for laboratory testing.

The scientists are hoping to map the DNA signature of the plague which could help uncover the cause of the Black Death.

The bones may also be radio carbon-dated to try and establish the burial dates.
Meanwhile a new French study, published in the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution, which analysed the Great Plague of Marseille, which caused 100,000 deaths between 1720 and 1723, says a number of factors show we are still at risk of plague today.

"It is quite instructive to revisit the sequence of events and decision that led to the outbreak," wrote researcher Christian Devaux, from the Centre for Pathogenic Agents and Health Biotechnologies in Montpellier

Devaux said that although preventative measures were known, such as quarantine, a number of small incidents of negligence lead to a massive outbreak, affecting 30 per cent of the population.

The study, titled "Small oversights that led to the Great Plague of Marseille (1720-1723): Lessons from the past", highlighted the need for effective management of epidemics in future.

"This is an excellent model to illustrate the issues we are facing with emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases today and to define how to improve biosurveillance and response tomorrow," Devaux wrote.

"Importantly, the risk of plague dissemination by transport trade is negligible between developed countries, however, this risk still persists in developing countries. In addition, the emergence of antibiotic resistant strains of Yersinia pestis, the infectious agent of plague, is raising serious concerns for public health."

The plague is by definition a re-emerging infectious disease which affects the lungs and is highly contagious, leading to mass outbreaks across populations.

History shows us that population levels suffered globally due to the plague, with around 75 million people globally perishing during the 14th century Black Death.

- AFP, nzherald.co.nz

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