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Antibiotics can cure the plague, but not stupidity

Locations: Columns Published

In early August, my friend Ylice Golden posted that she was “kind of freaked out that Colorado prairie dogs have the plague.”

Those infected prairie dogs probably wouldn’t have made the news at all had it not been for the fireworks show that usually happens after the Colorado Rapids soccer game. The Tri-County Health Department, which has been monitoring infected prairie dogs living near where the Rapids play in Commerce City, cancelled the fireworks because it feared that the prairie dogs’ plague could spread to humans.

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Although many (possibly most?) Coloradans don’t know it, the plague has been lurking here for more than a century.

But for stupidity, it could have been prevented. The four horsemen of the apocalypse that unloosed the Black Death here are named economics, ignorance, denial and racism.

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Historically, the plague originated in China. It spread via trade routes: The Yersinia pestis bacterium infected fleas that hitchhiked a ride on Silk Route camels. Later it stowed away on rats that infested merchant ships. It first arrived in Europe in October 1347 on 12 ships that docked in Sicily.

The resulting pestilence killed one of every four Europeans.

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In 1348-49, the plague killed about one-third of Britain’s population, so many that it caused a break in international trade and serious labor shortages. In hot demand, the surviving peasantry began demanding higher wages. The ruling class replied by passing a law making it illegal to pay wages higher than those offered in 1346. That led to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Similar revolts took place in Italy and other countries decimated by the Black Death. Thus, the plague authored the epitaph of the feudal economic system.

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Europe suffered waves of plague for the next 600 years. About 50 percent of those stricken survived bubonic plague (which infects lymph nodes), but physicians were helpless. The related pneumonic plague (which affects the lungs and is heralded by sneezing) was invariably fatal. That’s why we say “God bless you” when someone sneezes.

The Great Plague of London killed one of every five residents in 1665-66. Shakespeare’s only son died of plague, and the Black Death plays a role in “Romeo and Juliet”. After Romeo has been banished from Verona, a friar is dispatched to Mantua to explain that Juliet is going to fake her death. But the message never arrives; Mantua has been quarantined due to plague. Fake death leads to the real thing, not because of Yersinia pestis, but because of human frailty.

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The Black Plague arrived in the U.S. via the Golden Gate. Abetted by common human frailties – greed, denial, racism and a disdain for science — it escaped to infect rural areas of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon and Nevada. The story of how that happened is told in “The Barbary Plague,” a book by veteran Wall Street Journal health reporter Marilyn Chase.

Chase relates the story via two public health officers who fought the pestilence. Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun faced outright public hostility when he identified the plague in 1900. California Governor Henry Gage accused Kinyoun of falsifying evidence by injecting germs into dead bodies. The Southern Pacific Railroad, which had used (cheap) immigrant Chinese labor to build its tracks, bankrolled a backlash. The business community launched a personal smear campaign against Kinyoun. 

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Quack! Junk scientist! Pfft! Can’t have plague! Bad for business.

What? A lab found Yersinia pestis in the body of an immigrant? Well, plague only affects Orientals. “They’re weakened by eating so much rice.” Can’t hurt us White Folks.

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Of course, the wall that was thrown up around Chinatown did nothing to stop fleeing rats or masticating fleas. It would take federal intervention, a new governor and a second health officer to stem the contagion. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue applied hygiene and science, and the 1900 outbreak that caused 119 deaths was declared “over” in 1904.

The 1906 earthquake toppled that proclamation. In 1907, the plague not only reappeared in San Francisco – a city then populated by refugees living in tents – it also cropped up in Oakland. By June 1908, 160 more plague cases had been identified. The 78 who died included whites, not “just” Asians.

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Between 1907 and 1911, roughly $2 million was spent to kill as many rats as possible – but it was a day late and a dollar short. The disease had already spread to the California ground squirrel, and from them to wood rats, chipmunks, mice, voles, rabbits and…prairie dogs.

And now we got trouble, right here in Commerce City. Trouble. That starts with T and that rhymes with P…and that stands for plague.

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Fortunately, today, in humans, plague can be quickly squelched with antibiotics. No one has died of it in Colorado since 2015.

Unfortunately, there’s no cure for stupid.

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