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Will there soon be another terrible disease like the plague?




Painting: Arnold Böcklin

The plague is a highly infectious disease caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium. The biggest pandemic of the plague was the “Black Death”, which lasted from 1347 to 1353 and claimed the lives of an estimated 25 million Europeans – around a third of the population at the time. But the plague is still around today, inflicting new infections and deaths with some regularity. In late 2013, 20 people in northern Madagascar died of pneumonic plague. But it is unlikely that the bacterium could spread today like it did in the 14th century, as there are now vaccinations against the disease and sanitary conditions have greatly improved. Also, given early treatment, most patients are likely to make a full recovery.
In Germany, the plague is one of the diseases subject to quarantine; patients suffering from such a disease have to be placed in special isolation wards. Any case of infection must be reported to the German health authorities and to the Robert Koch Institute, which then passes the information on to the WHO.
Current pandemics – diseases that spread quickly and easily over a wide area – include HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and various types of flu. But for each of these there are preventive measures and new treatments that restrict the spread of disease.

Saskia Blank of the Ideas 2020 team answered this question.