Friday, June 19, 2015

Did Ebola doom Periclean Athens?

Unfortunately timed plagues can have a major effect on history. The so-called Plague of Justinian in the 6th century -- now believed to have been bubonic plague -- killed some 40 percent of the population of Constantinople, a quarter of the population of the Eastern Mediterranean, and permanently crippled Roman military power, effectively ending Emperor Justinian's efforts to recapture the Western Roman Empire and leaving the Romans vulnerable to the Muslim invasions a century later. The catalyst for release of the plague is believed to have been the so-called Climate Crisis of the 6th Century, in which most of the earth suffered from unseasonable weather, causing crop failures and famines worldwide. The political effects were devastating, leading to the fall of Teotihuacan, Sassanid Persia, and the Gupta Empire, among others, and the rise of Islam. 

Another plague that had a major effect on history was The Plague of Athens in 430 BC. Just as Athens was getting the upper hand in the Peloponnesian War, Athens was crippled by this plague. The city was made more vulnerable by the overcrowding caused by refugees fleeing Spartan troops in the Attic countryside. Athens lost one-third to two-thirds of its population, including its best general Pericles and both of his sons. Athens never fully recovered from this plague, and went on to lose the Peloponnesian War. 

This plague has never been identified. Now, one researcher believes it was none other than the Ebola virus:
Could the first recorded Ebola outbreak have occurred not in Africa less than 40 years ago, but rather, more than 2,400 years ago, in ancient Greece? That's what one professor of infectious diseases and history now suggests.
In the new paper, (University of Michigan history and infectious diseases Professor Powel) Kazanjian suggests that an Ebola virus may have been the culprit in the infamous Plague of Athens, a five-year epidemic that began in 430 B.C., whose cause has long been a matter of conjecture among physicians and historians. The famed historian Thucydides, who chronicled the Peloponnesian War between the rival city-states of Athens and Sparta, was not only an eyewitness to the Athenian disease, but also contracted it himself and survived.
"The Athenian epidemic in 430 B.C. has had a fascinating attraction for researchers of communicable diseases for a long period of time," said William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Athenian illness, also called Thucydides syndrome, began with an abrupt onset of fever, headache, fatigue, and pain in the stomach and extremities, accompanied by furious vomiting. Those who survived after seven days of illness also experienced severe diarrhea. Additional symptoms included reddened eyes, hiccups and bleeding from the mouth. Stricken individuals also sometimes experienced cough, seizures, confusion, rashes, pustules, ulcers, and even loss of fingers and toes, possibly due to gangrene.
As the disease progressedin those afflicted, Thucydides noted that people became so dehydrated that some plunged themselves into wells in futile attempts to quench their unceasing thirst. The disease often ended in death, typically by day seven to nine of the illness. Medical treatment was useless against the disease's severity and bleak outcome.
"Thucydides' vivid description allows present-day historians and clinicians to speculate about the cause of prior epidemics and the historical roots of our epidemics we know about today," Kazanjian said.
The Athenian disease began south of Egypt in a region Thucydides called "Aethiopia," a term that ancient Greeks used to refer to regions in sub-Saharan Africa, where modern Ebola outbreaks have occurred, Kazanjian said. In the ancient world, sub-Saharan Africans migrated to Greece to work as farmers or servants, thereby providing a potential human vector for Ebola.
Kazanjian argued that the symptoms, mortality rate and origin in sub-Saharan Africa that characterize the Plague of Athens are consistent with what is known about Ebola. He added that physicians were among the first victims of the Athenian disease in Thucydides' account, just as modern health care workers have proven especially vulnerable to Ebola, with nearly 500 dying from the virus in the current outbreak as of January, according to the World Health Organization.
"Diseases like Ebola, which we sometimes lump into the category of a new or emerging disease, may actually be much older than we realize," Kazanjian said. His paper was published June 1 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
A number of other possible causes of Thucydides syndrome have been suggested over the years, including typhus, smallpox, measles, anthrax, the bubonic plague and toxic shock syndrome. Kazanjian argued that no other disease matches the features of the Athenian disease as well as Ebola does; however, he said, "my study does not answer this question definitively. …
The actual cause remains elusive, he said."
"We may never know what caused the Athenian epidemic," said Schaffner, who did not take part in Kazanjian's paper. "I think it's a bit far-fetched that the plague of Athens was Ebola, but I think it's great fun that new people have become engaged in what I call studious speculation of the subject."

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