Given the many pressing concerns of the day, fear of plague probably isn’t what causes most Americans to lose sleep. But for those whose responsibility it is to combat bioterrorism, plague is among the highest priorities.
Those charged with that mission include scientists like medical researcher Steve Smiley, whose lab at the Trudeau Institute is working to develop a vaccine that will protect the public against weaponized forms of plague.
The Institute, which is dedicated to studying how the immune system responds to infectious diseases, is at the forefront of an international effort to protect the public against an ominous foe, whose very name conjures up images of widespread suffering and death.
Caused by the organism Yersinia pestis, plague is a severe and potentially deadly bacterial infection most often spread by rodents. Although rare in the United States, there have been outbreaks of plague in California, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.
Humans typically contract the disease from fleas that spread the bacteria from infected animals like rats, but plague can also spread from human to human, transported in the air through the coughs of the infected.
While plague is usually sensitive to antibiotics, the governments of the United States and Great Britain are concerned that weaponized plague would likely resist such treatment.
During the Middle Ages, resourceful armies hurled plague-infested bodies over castle walls to spread disease and fear, and it is widely believed this early form of biowarfare initiated the “Black Death,” the plague pandemic which decimated a third of Europe’s population. During World War II, the Japanese experimented with germ warfare by dropping plague-infested fleas on the Chinese.
And the former Soviet Union’s biowarfare division produced bombs designed to release plague-causing bacteria into the air above American cities. A World Health Organization study concluded that the detonation of a plague “bio-bomb” over a city of five million could cause 150,000 cases of pneumonic plague, leading to 36,000 fatalities. …