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Typhoid fever led to the fall of Athens


Scientists have for many years debated the cause of the Plague of Athens. Analysis carried out by Manolis Papagrigorakis and colleagues using DNA collected from teeth from an ancient Greek burial pit points to typhoid fever as the disease responsible for this devastating epidemic. The study appears on the online version of The International Journal of Infectious Diseases (IJID) published by Elsevier on behalf of the International Society for Infectious Diseases.

The plague that began in Ethiopia and passed through Egypt and Libya to Greece in 430-426 B.C. changed the balance of power between Athens and Sparta, ending the Golden Age of Pericles and Athenian dominance in the ancient world. It is thought that up to one third of the Athenians, including their charismatic leader, Pericles, perished in the epidemic.

Until now our understanding of this outbreak was based on the account by the fifth century B.C. Greek historian Thucydides, who himself was taken ill with the plague but recovered. Despite Thucydides’ detailed description, researchers have not managed to agree on the identity of the plague and several diseases, including bubonic plague, smallpox, anthrax and measles have been implicated in the emergence and spread of this epidemic.

A mass burial pit unearthed in the Kerameikos ancient cemetery of Athens and dated back to the time of the historical outbreak, provided the required skeletal material for the investigation of ancient microbial DNA. Aided by modern DNA recovery and amplification techniques, Papagigorakis et al used dental pulp to identify DNA sequences similar to those of the modern day Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi, the organism that causes typhoid fever. The results of this study point to typhoid fever as the probable cause of the Plague of Athens.

Typhoid fever is transmitted by contaminated food or water, and nowadays the disease is most common in developing countries and in travellers returning from these countries.

Corresponding author Dr Manolis J Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens says: “Studying the historical aspects of infectious diseases can be a powerful tool for several disciplines to learn from. We believe this report to be of outstanding importance for many scientific fields, since it sheds light to one of the most debated enigmas in medical history.”

Catherine O’Hara | EurekAlert!
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