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Var middelalderens pester og moderne pest samme sykdom?

Lars Walløe, f. 1938, dr. med. 1968, professor i fysiologi ved Institutt for medisinske basalfag, Universitetet i Oslo.

  • Side: 13-28
  • Publisert på Idunn: 2010-04-13
  • Publisert: 2010-04-13

Moderne pest nådde Hongkong i 1894. Sykdomsårsaken ble påvist å være bakterien Yersinia pestis, som ble overført til mennesker fra svarte rotter (Rattus rattus) ved hjelp av rotteloppen Xenopsylla cheopis. Historikere har senere forutsatt denne smittemodellen når de har behandlet middelalderens pestepidemier i Europa. De siste 25 år har biologer og nylig også en historiker utfordret denne forståelsen. De hevder at de historiske pestepidemiene må ha vært en helt annen sykdom enn moderne pest. I den foreliggende artikkelen blir dagens kunnskap om moderne pest og nyere forsøk på å karakterisere smittestoff fra lik fra tidligere tiders pestgraver presentert og diskutert. Konklusjonen er at middelalderens pestepidemier også var forårsaket av Yersinia pestis, men at rotter ikke kan ha vært ansvarlige for smitteoverføringen.

Were medieval plagues the same disease as modern plague?

In his book The Black Death Transformed, the historian Samuel Cohn claims that the epidemic disease described in Western European historical sources from AD 1347 to the mid-17th century under the name pestis and similar terms must have been a disease other than the modern plague that reached Hong Kong in 1894. The disease was shown to be caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, and, some years later, the most likely transmission route was found to be from the black rat to humans via the rat flea Xenopsylla cheopis. Cohn’s main arguments are that: 1) there is a complete lack of evidence of the involvement of rats and rat fleas in late-medieval/early-modern plagues, and 2) the speed of transmission is different. Medieval plagues spread rapidly, whereas the spread of modern plague has been slow. However, during the past ten years scientists have found traces of Yersinia pestis DNA in dental pulp from medieval plague victims. It has also recently been shown that fleas other than Xenopsylla cheopis can be efficient transmitters of plague. The obvious candidate in all northern European countries is the human flea Pulex irritans, which in earlier times could be found in large numbers, and not just in beds, but also in thick layers of clothing. This has led to the conclusion that: 1) most or all late medieval and early modern «plague» epidemics were caused by Yersinia pestis, 2) few if any of the historical European plague epidemics involved rats as intermediate host. The mode of transmission was from human to human via an insect vector. Pulex irritans may have been the most important arthropod vector in Europe prior to the late 19th century, but other ectoparasites (other fleas, lice, etc.) could also have been involved.

Keywords: black rat, fleas, medieval plague, pulex irritans
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