Pieter Bruegel's "The Triumph of Death"
Image courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid
Hell on Earth, the nightmare depicted by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel in his mid-16th-century "The Triumph of Death" reflects the social upheaval and terror that followed the plague that devastated medieval Europe. Thought by most to be a scourge of the past, the bacteria of the plague still appears from time to time and has even been researched as a biological weapon by some countries.
Photograph by CNRI/Science Photo Library
Plague is a known worldwide killer of men, women, and children. It takes three forms: pneumonic, bubonic, and septicemic. Plague causes a painful, relatively quick death that often involves vomiting, bleeding, and gangrene of the skin. Fortunately, today's antibiotics can kill the Yersinia pestis bacteria and save its victim upon early detection.
Photograph by Dr. Tony Brain/Science Photo Library
A flea clings to rat fur in this colored scanning electron micrograph. As carriers of plague, fleas have claimed more victims than all the wars ever fought.
Bubonic Plague Research
Photograph by the National Library of Medicine/Science Photo Library
In 1914, during an outbreak of bubonic plague in New Orleans, scientists dissect rats suspected of having the disease. Research plus rat-proofing and rat-catching measures helped contain the outbreak—bubonic plague's last major stand in the United States—to a few dozen victims and only ten deaths. Carried by fleas from rodents to humans, bubonic plague cannot pass from human to human.
Photograph by Jacqueline Brossolet
A doctor swathed in protective gear checks a patient in Manchuria during the 1910-11 outbreak of pneumatic plague, the last before the discovery of sulpha drugs in 1933. Pneumatic plague is the rarest and deadliest form of plague.
Photograph by Nicole Duplaix
A rodent's burrow may have been the source of infection for Carl Weinmeister of Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1983 he survived plague caught from a flea that one of his pets picked up from an infected rodent.
Photograph by Nicole Duplaix
Thought by most to be extinct, plague is very much alive today. It lives on in rodents on most continents, but conditions for outbreak usually ripen in poverty-stricken rural areas such as this village in Namibia. Here, Dr. Margaretha Issacson, a senior plague control advisor, inspects the hut of plague victim Martha Hainibodi, 61, who has returned to her village after treatment. Antibiotics are used to treat plague, but some fear that if the bacteria develop resistance, another pandemic could occur.
Photograph by Scott Camazine/Alamy
Human lungs are the most terrifying tools of the plague. Pneumonic plague, seen affecting both lung fields in this x-ray, is the only form of plague spread from person to person. It is transmitted by coughs and sneezes. The fatality rate of pneumonic plague is a staggering 95 percent. Treatment can be effective during the first 24 hours of infection, but plague is often mistaken as the flu. Victims are lucky to live more than 48 hours.
Photograph by James Stanfield
A Myanmar (Burma) official checks National Geographic author Peter McMillan for signs of plague. McMillan had just arrived from India, where the disease had broken out in several towns. After a cursory examination, he was released.
Photograph by USA National Library of Medicine/Science Photo Library
Firefighters in Honolulu, Hawaii, burn the houses on either side of a plague victim's home in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease in the early 1900s. Plague continues to thrive today; the World Health Organization reports 1,000 to 3,000 new cases of the disease every year.
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