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Study: Black Death Selective in its Wrath
Report finds that plague targeted the weak, frail

Contact(s):  Catherine Herman (518) 956-8150

ALBANY, N.Y. (January 30, 2008) -- Despite the long-held assumption by historians that Europe's Black Death of 1347 to 1351 killed indiscriminately, a new report by University at Albany anthropologist Sharon DeWitte and Pennsylvania State University researcher James Wood finds that the deadly plague targeted the already ill and weak.

The report's conclusions, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that the Black Death -- the deadliest known epidemic in human history -- was selective in killing the ill, while many of the otherwise healthy survived the infection, refuting the assumption that it killed the healthy and sick alike, irrespective of age, sex or frailty.

Researchers examined a total of 490 skeletons from the East Smithfield cemetery in London -- set up to bury victims of the Black Death -- to test whether mortality associated with the outbreak of the Black Death was selective with response to preexisting health conditions. Frailty was indicated by the presence of at least one skeletal lesion known from prior research to be associated with earlier episodes of infection, under-nutrition or other forms of physiological stress.

As a comparison, they analyzed the bones of 291 genetically and culturally similar people buried in a Danish cemetery shortly before the plague began. Among the East Smithfield plague victims, bone lesions showed that many of those people were already in poor health when the Black Death struck.

"Studying the Black Death is relevant today in that it gives us some insight into who might be at highest risk for new, emerging diseases like SARS and Ebola," said DeWitte, assistant professor of anthropology at UAlbany.

Key findings of the report include:

Level of excess mortality for each lesion was higher in Denmark than in East Smithfield, suggesting that the Black Death was not as strongly selective as normal mortality.

Black Death was selective with respect to at least some of the skeletal indictors of frailty, as individuals who had those lesions before the Black Death appear to have been more likely to die during the epidemic than individuals without them.

In Denmark, during times of normal mortality, individuals with periosteal lesions of the tibia were more than five times more likely to die than their peers without such lesions; however during the Black Death, individuals who had tibial lesions before the outbreak were only about 50 percent more likely to die than their unaffected peers.

View the report.

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