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The Black Plague and its descendents

By Alan Caruba
web posted April 11, 2005

This month, the New Jersey Pest Management Association issued a news release to warn against the prospect of billions of mosquitoes and threat of West Nile Fever they pose. West Nile Fever arrived in New York City in 1999 and, within three years, it had spread to California.

In Washington, an executive order was signed recently to insure that avian flu does not reach these shores and, when a single case of Mad Cow Disease was discovered, the border was shut to Canadian beef. When SARS broke out in Red China a few years ago, it too was quickly quarantined. Like the Black Death that originated in inner Asia, many of the plagues that threaten us today begin there as well. We, however, live in an era of global communication in which these forms of pestilence can be identified and steps taken to thwart their spread.

That wasn't the case in 1347 when Yersina pestis, the Black Death, arrived in Europe, having made its way there from trading outposts in the Crimea. In a fascinating new book, The Great Mortality by John Kelly ($25.95, HarperCollins), the story of how this plague bacillus would transform history is told as it moved from nation to nation. It is estimated to have killed a third of the entire population of Europe.

"The medieval plague is the second greatest catastrophe in the human record," writes Kelly. "Only World War II produced more death." Though distant in time from us, such massive death is not unusual in our times. Every year, millions die of Malaria in Africa simply because the environmental movement, sparked by a book written by Rachel Carson in the 1950s, has done everything in its power to eliminate the use of DDT and every other pesticide that might otherwise protect our lives.

That is murder on a grand scale. Malaria is spread by mosquitoes. If DDT had not been banned by a United Nations protocol, those millions would have been spared an early death. Its favorite victims continue to be women and children.

The Black Death was spread by a combination of rats and fleas. The disease was spread from infected rats to humans by the fleas. Anyone who does not credit Nature with the capacity to wipe out vast numbers of humans does not know history. I can recall being on Fox News Channel in 1999 to rebut somebody from the Audubon Society who was opposed to spraying to kill the mosquito population in and around New York City. Ironically, West Nile Fever kills birds by the thousands. That year there were 62 human cases and it killed seven people. Within a year, the crow population was decimated.

Conditions in New York City in 1999 and today were quite different from the cities of medieval Europe where the Black Plague thrived. People did not bathe. Rats were everywhere. Rivers were used as sewers. Human offal was tossed into the streets. There was no sanitation. At best, life expectancy was in the thirties. An estimated 25 million died from the Black Plague, about a third of the population.

There is a reason we are not overwhelmed by a population of rats. A legion of people, descendents of medieval rat catchers, work to protect human life and billions in property. They are the members of the modern pest management industry. It used to be called the pest control industry until the incessant anti-pesticide propaganda of the environmentalists convinced them to change the name. There was a not-to-distant time when they proudly called themselves "exterminators."

It forced a change in the way pest control was practiced. Now "Integrated Pest Management" is the style of the times with a heavy emphasis on inspections and recommendations of ways to interdict insect and rodent pests before they gain access to a home or any other structure. Under Integrated Pest Management, pesticide application is the last measure used when all others fail.

Pesticides, all of which undergo an Environmental Protection Agency registration process that can cost up to $50 million dollars for a single new product, has seen the loss of many excellent products withdrawn from the marketplace despite years of successful and effective use against a wide range of insect or rodent pests. There is little incentive to introduce new ones. Too many people remained convinced the pesticides will kill them, not the pests.

Are we safer now? I don't know, but I am inclined to think we're not.

We can pardon the ignorant masses of Europe and Asia who did not know how disease was spread for being party to their own decimation. When the Black Death subsided in about four years, having spread throughout Europe to England, it was followed by another in 1361 that was known as the "Children's Plague" taking the lives of those born after the first plague. Other plagues would follow, but they would not have the profound affect on history as the Black Death.

The philosopher, George Santayana, warned that those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it. It is folly to think that some new plague could not occur. Meanwhile we worry that Islamic radicals will use "bio-warfare", but it is Nature about whom we must worry most. Nature with its rats, mice, fleas, ticks and mosquitoes.

It is not for nothing that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are War, Famine, Disease and Death.

Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on the website of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba, April 2005

 

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