The AIDS Epidemic Versus The Plague

The destruction and devastation caused by the “Black
Death” of the Middle Ages was a phenomenon left to
wonder at in text books of historical Europe. An
unstoppable plague swept the continent taking as much as
eighty percent of the European population along with it
(Forsyth). However, Today the world is plagued with a
similar deadly disease. The AIDS epidemic continues to be
incurable. In an essay written by David Herlihy, entitled
“Bubonic Plague: Historical Epidemiology and the Medical
Problems,” the historic bubonic plague is compared with
the current AIDS epidemic of today. According to his
research, AIDS will probably prove to be the plague of the
millennium (Herlihy p. 18). If one compares the
epidemiology and social impact of these diseases they
prove to be quite similar. The current AIDS epidemic has
the potential to be the most dangerous and destructive
plague of the millennium. No one knows exactly how the
AIDS virus erupted. However, one presently dominant
theory states that AIDS originated from monkeys in Africa
that transmitted the HIV virus to humans through bites
(Forsyth). As people migrated it reached Haiti and then
spread to America (Clark p. 65). The bubonic plague, too,
was a spontaneous epidemic. The Black Death occurred
because a bacillus was carried by fleas that fed off the
blood of humans and transmitted the deadly bacillus in the
process (Packer). It began in China and spread by
migration throughout all of Europe and even America
(Forsyth). Efforts to contain both diseases were entirely
unsuccessful. AIDS is now an international problem as was
the bubonic plague. Like the bubonic plague did in the
Middle Ages, AIDS is spreading at an alarming rate. In
1994 seventeen million people around the world were
infected with the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and four
million had developed the disease (Packer). It is estimated
that by the year 2000 more than forty million people, ninety
percent in developing countries will be infected (Packer).
The Black Death of the Middle Ages exterminated a third
of the population of Europe in just four years. Also, like the
bubonic plague, AIDS was once only found among certain
delineated social groups: (Herlihy p. 18) drug abusers and
homosexuals in this country and in prostitutes and their
contacts in Africa. Due to the early epidemiology of AIDS
cases, it was believed that only certain populations in
specific areas were infected. Aids may have started out in
small communities, but it spread quickly and widely. We
are now aware that the HIV virus is not limited in its
selection of hosts. Anyone can become infected despite
one’s background. Similarly, the plague of the Middle Ages
was once believed to only infect the impoverished. Royalty
was quick to learn. People of various social statures
ultimately became victims. Socially people responded in
similar fashions to these scourges. When AIDS first
arrived, families often withdrew from their loved one’s
because they were ashamed or they did not want to deal
with the heartbreaking struggle of a long painful death of a
family member. Society shunned AIDS victims, fearing the
contagious threat of any contact. During the Middle Ages
families would place their ill relatives in the streets to die. It
was too much of a risk to aid the infected because
commonly those who did became infected as well. It was
even believed that one could become infected just through
a stare from someone who was infected. Presently and in
the past, infected peoples have been disregarded and
feared. It is because of superstitions and prejudices that
societies live in ignorance and fear. When compared with
the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages, the epidemiology
and virulence of the AIDS virus are strikingly similar. “ If
history remains a reliable guide, this epidemic too will run
its vicious course, spreading acute misery. Then it will take
its place in the background of the ecosystem, alongside the
organisms that cause influenza, syphilis, measles and a host
of other infections.”(Manning) The similar characteristics of
the bubonic plague and the HIV virus threaten AIDS to be
the most dangerous and destructive plague of the
millennium as David Herlihy proposed.

Category: Science