A team including researchers at the Total Defense Research Institute, NBC Defense, in Umeå, Sweden, and the Department of Molecular Biology, Umeå University, are publishing in this week’s issue of Science new findings that show that the protein Ymt is of crucial importance for the capacity of the plague bacterium to survive and spread the plague via flea vectors. Professor Åke Forsberg and visiting researcher Dr. Peter Cherepanov are studying the properties that enable the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis to cause life-threatening infections in animals and humans. Increased knowledge of the mechanisms that Y. pestis exploits to conquer the body’s immune defense can make it possible to develop new methods of treatment for serious infectious diseases.
Historically, the plague is one of our most feared infectious diseases. During the most wide-spread epidemic in the middle ages, also known as the Black Death, more than 25% of the European population died. Today the disease is not very common, with some 2,000 cases per year. The plague occurs primarily in Africa and Asia, but there are also a few cases in North America every year.
The bacteria are normally spread by fleas, first of all to rodents. Humans can also be infected by fleas. When the disease reaches the lungs of a human, the infection can be spread through the air to other people. The onset of the disease is rapid, with a high temperature and a headache. There is often an enlargement of the lymph glands located near the back of the jaw, which explains why it is also called the bubonic plague. Untreated, the infection quickly reaches the blood, leading to general blood poisoning. Mortality for untreated bubonic plague is over 50%. If the infection is spread by the air to the lungs, the course of the disease is even more rapid, and mortality for untreated lung plague is virtually 100%. The high rate of mortality, together with the rapid progression of the disease, places plague bacteria among those considered for use as a biological weapon.
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