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The Twisted History of Infectious Disease

This week's notes:

BLACK DEATH - Bubonic Plague

The Black Death, also known as the Pestilence, Great Bubonic Plague, the Great Plague or the Plague, or less commonly the Black Plague, was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. 

When the disease spread to Europe between 1346–1353, it killed an estimated 75 to 200 million people, about 30–60% of Europe’s total population at the time. It took 200 years for Europe's population to recover to its previous level.

Modern analysis of the Black Death shows us that the pathogen responsible was the Yersinia pestis bacterium. The place of origin for this pandemic was probably Central Asia. It spread to Europe carried by the traders of the Silk Road. It was most likely carried by fleas living on the black rats that traveled on merchant ships and the unlucky people that caught the disease were usually dead in just a few days.

Their final days were extremely unpleasant. The diseased people developed symptoms like high fever, severe vomiting, and bleeding from the lungs. The bodies of the victims were also covered with gruesome painful boils.

The desperation for cures led people down weird roads…

Rubbing the victim’s body with a chicken Yes, exactly, it sounds like a joke, but it was a real method that was often used by people. The whole ritual was called “the Vicary Method.” It was named after Thomas Vicary, the English doctor who invented it. 

First, a hens butt needed to be shaved and then strapped on the swollen lymph nodes of the sick person. All of this was done with a live and breading chicken. 

Then, when the chicken got sick too, it needed to be washed and applied on the person again until only the chicken or victim remained healthy. Strangely enough, the technique was widespread. Many chickens got sick and spread their plague-ridden parasites everywhere. 

Vicary became famous and even today, there is a special lecture held every year in his honor in the Royal College of Surgeons in England.

Applying human excrement paste on the victim

This one is probably the most disgusting one. A cure from hell. The inflamed lymph nodes in the armpits or groin of the plague victim were opened in order for the disease to “leave” the body, and then a mixture of tree resins, flower roots, and human excrement was applied directly on the wounds. The “treated” places were then wrapped up. This whole process is probably a good starting point for a whole new disease.

Modern Day (kinda)


Smallpox is a contagious, disfiguring and often deadly disease that has affected humans for thousands of years. Naturally occurring smallpox was eradicated worldwide by 1980 — the result of an unprecedented global immunization campaign.

Samples of smallpox virus have been kept for research purposes. This has led to concerns that smallpox could someday be used as a biological warfare agent.

No cure or treatment for smallpox exists. A vaccine can prevent smallpox, but the risk of the vaccine's side effects is too high to justify routine vaccination for people at low risk of exposure to the smallpox virus.

The first symptoms of smallpox usually appear 10 to 14 days after you're infected. During the incubation period of seven to 17 days, you look and feel healthy and can't infect others.
Following the incubation period, a sudden onset of flu-like signs and symptoms occurs. These include:

  • Fever

  • Overall discomfort

  • Headache

  • Severe fatigue

  • Severe back pain

  • Vomiting, possibly

    A few days later, flat, red spots appear first on your face, hands and forearms, and later on your trunk. Within a day or two, many of these lesions turn into small blisters filled with clear fluid, which then turns into pus. Scabs begin to form eight to nine days later and eventually fall off, leaving deep, pitted scars.

    Lesions also develop in the mucous membranes of your nose and mouth and quickly turn into sores that break open.


Ebola virus and Marburg virus are related viruses that cause hemorrhagic fevers — illnesses marked by severe bleeding (hemorrhage), organ failure and, in many cases, death. Both viruses are native to Africa, where sporadic outbreaks have occurred for decades.

Ebola virus and Marburg virus live in animal hosts, and humans can contract the viruses from infected animals. After the initial transmission, the viruses can spread from person to person through contact with body fluids or contaminated needles.

No drug has been approved to treat either virus. 

Signs and symptoms typically begin abruptly within five to 10 days of infection with Ebola or Marburg virus. Early signs and symptoms include:

  • Fever

  • Severe headache

  • Joint and muscle aches

  • Chills

  • Weakness

    Over time, symptoms become increasingly severe and may include:

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea (may be bloody)

  • Red eyes

  • Raised rash

  • Chest pain and cough

  • Sore throat

  • Stomach pain

  • Severe weight loss

  • Bruising

  • Bleeding, usually from the eyes, and when close to death, possible

    bleeding from the ears, nose and rectum

  • Internal bleeding

Ebola virus has been found in African monkeys, chimps and other nonhuman primates. A milder strain of Ebola has been discovered in monkeys and pigs in the Philippines.

Marburg virus has been found in monkeys, chimps and fruit bats in Africa. 

Discovered in 1976 but the outbreak between 2014 and 2016 put it on the radar… Over 28,000 cases and nearly 12,000 deaths


Cold sores — also called fever blisters — are a common viral infection. They are tiny, fluid-filled blisters on and around your lips. These blisters are often grouped together in patches. After the blisters break, a crust forms over the resulting sore. Cold sores usually heal in two to four weeks without leaving a scar.

Cold sores spread from person to person by close contact, such as kissing. They're caused by a herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) closely related to the one that causes genital herpes (HSV-2). Both of these viruses can affect your mouth or genitals and can be spread by oral sex. Cold sores are contagious even if you don't see the sores.

There's no cure for HSV infection, and the blisters may return. Antiviral medications can help cold sores heal more quickly and may reduce how often they return.


Genital Herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection ALSO caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV2). Sexual contact is the primary way that the virus spreads. After the initial infection, the virus lies dormant in your body and can reactivate several times a year.

Genital herpes can cause pain, itching and sores in your genital area. But you may have no signs or symptoms of genital herpes. If infected, you can be contagious even if you have no visible sores.

There's no cure for genital herpes, but medications can ease symptoms and reduce the risk of infecting others. Condoms also can help prevent the spread of a genital herpes infection.

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