Bacterial Diseases in Humans

Long History of Bacterial Disease

There are records about infectious diseases as far back as 3000 B.C. A number of significant pandemics caused by bacteria have been documented over several hundred years. Some of the most memorable pandemics led to the decline of cities and entire nations.

In the 21st century, infectious diseases remain among the leading causes of death worldwide, despite advances made in medical research and treatments in recent decades. A disease spreads when the pathogen that causes it is passed from one person to another. For a pathogen to cause disease, it must be able to reproduce in the host’s body and damage the host in some way.

The Plague of Athens

In 430 B.C., the Plague of Athens killed one-quarter of the Athenian troops who were fighting in the great Peloponnesian War and weakened Athens’s dominance and power. The plague impacted people living in overcrowded Athens as well as troops aboard ships that had to return to Athens. The source of the plague may have been identified recently when researchers from the University of Athens were able to use DNA from teeth recovered from a mass grave. The scientists identified nucleotide sequences from a pathogenic bacterium, Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi (Figure), which causes typhoid fever.Papagrigorakis MJ, Synodinos PN, and Yapijakis C. Ancient typhoid epidemic reveals possible ancestral strain of Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi. Infect Genet Evol 7 (2007): 126–7, Epub 2006 Jun. This disease is commonly seen in overcrowded areas and has caused epidemics throughout recorded history.

Micrograph shows pink rod-shaped bacteria.
Salmonella enterica. Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi, the causative agent of Typhoid fever, is a Gram-negative, rod-shaped gamma proteobacterium. Typhoid fever, which is spread through feces, causes intestinal hemorrhage, high fever, delirium, and dehydration. Today, between 16 and 33 million cases of this re-emerging disease occur annually, resulting in over 200,000 deaths. Carriers of the disease can be asymptomatic. In a famous case in the early 1900s, a cook named Mary Mallon (“Typhoid Mary”) unknowingly spread the disease to over fifty people, three of whom died. Other serotypes of Salmonella cause food poisoning. (credit: modification of work by NCI, CDC)

Bubonic Plagues

From 541 to 750, the Plague of Justinian, an outbreak of what was likely bubonic plague, eliminated one-quarter to one-half of the human population in the eastern Mediterranean region. The population in Europe dropped by 50 percent during this outbreak. Astoundingly, bubonic plague would strike Europe more than once!

Bubonic plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. One of the most devastating pandemics attributed to bubonic plague was the Black Death (1346 to 1361). It is thought to have originated in China and spread along the Silk Road, a network of land and sea trade routes, to the Mediterranean region and Europe, carried by fleas living on black rats that were always present on ships. The Black Death was probably named for the tissue necrosis (Figurec) that can be one of the symptoms. The "buboes" of bubonic plague were painfully swollen areas of lymphatic tissue. A pneumonic form of the plague, spread by the coughing and sneezing of infected individuals, spreads directly from human to human and can cause death within a week. The pneumonic form was responsible for the rapid spread of the Black Death in Europe. The Black Death reduced the world’s population from an estimated 450 million to about 350 to 375 million. Bubonic plague struck London yet again in the mid-1600s (Figure). In modern times, approximately 1,000 to 3,000 cases of plague arise globally each year, and a “sylvatic” form of plague, carried by fleas living on rodents such as prairie dogs and black footed ferrets, infects 10 to 20 people annually in the American Southwest. Although contracting bubonic plague before antibiotics meant almost certain death, the bacterium responds to several types of modern antibiotics, and mortality rates from plague are now very low.

Illustration A shows two men loading a dead body onto a cart. Another body lies in the street. Label beneath the illustration says, “Plague in 1665.” Micrograph B shows rod-shaped bacteria. Photo C shows a man with black gangrene on his fingers, arm, nose and lips.
The Black Death. The (a) Great Plague of London killed an estimated 200,000 people, or about 20 percent of the city’s population. The causative agent, the (b) bacterium Yersinia pestis, is a Gram-negative, rod-shaped bacterium from the class Gammaproteobacteria. The disease is transmitted through the bite of an infected flea, which is carried on a rodent. Symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, fever, seizure, vomiting of blood, and (c) gangrene. (credit b: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell; credit c: Textbook of Military Medicine, Washington, D.C., U.S. Dept. of the Army, Office of the Surgeon General, Borden Institute)

Link to Learning

Watch a video on the modern understanding of the Black Death—bubonic plague in Europe during the 14th century.

Migration of Diseases to New Populations

One of the negative consequences of human exploration was the accidental “biological warfare” that resulted from the transport of a pathogen into a population that had not previously been exposed to it. Over the centuries, Europeans tended to develop genetic immunity to endemic infectious diseases, but when European conquerors reached the western hemisphere, they brought with them disease-causing bacteria and viruses, which triggered epidemics that completely devastated many diverse populations of Native Americans, who had no natural resistance to many European diseases. It has been estimated that up to 90 percent of Native Americans died from infectious diseases after the arrival of Europeans, making conquest of the New World a foregone conclusion.

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