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Bubonic plague 'could return to the UK'
black rat
Black rats have reappeared in some parts of the UK
Climate changes and increasing globalisation could bring back the diseases of the Middle Ages, an expert has warned.

Vic Simpson of the government's Veterinary Laboratories Agencies told a seminar at the British Veterinary Association's annual conference that the bacterium responsible for the Black Death which ravaged Europe and Asia between the 14th and 17th centuries could find its way back to Britain.

He said black rats, the bacterium's hosts, had recently reappeared in some parts of the UK.

"The species has the potential to reestablish large populations in areas of urban decay," he stated.

The Black Death was caused by a huge growth in the number of infected black rats living close to man.

Infection was spread to man through bites from rat fleas, causing deadly bubonic plague and a highly contagious strain of pneumonia.

Mr Simpson said the bacterium responsible - Yersinia pestis - which is still present in some parts of the world and caused 108 deaths in 1992, could find its way back into the UK as a result of international trade.

Rats with the disease could get into the UK in sealed containers carried by boats or planes and spread the infection to black rats already in the country.

Although the plague is now treatable if caught early, Mr Simpson warned that vigilance was necessary to stop a mass outbreak.

A vaccine also exists against the plague, but is not effective immediately and not therefore suitable for use in an epidemic.

New infections

Mr Simpson was speaking about the need for greater vigilance to prevent the arrival of new viruses, parasites and bugs in the country.

He said these could be introduced by three main routes:

  • Migrating birds, attracted to the UK by climate changes or alterations in land usage
  • The deliberate introduction of new forms of wildlife, such as exotic pets, and through relaxed quarantine regulations like pet passports to be introduced in the next few years
  • Through international trade, including growing international travel

He highlighted, for example, how a dangerous brain virus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, was recently introduced into the USA through a mosquito found in discarded tyres imported from Japan.

The current outbreak of St Louis Encephalitis in New York was thought to be have introduced by birds migrating north because of climate changes.

Mr Simpson warned that the UK had no organisation with the remit or resources to monitor new infections and viruses carried by wildlife.

He said this had been done by his agency in the past, but this role was now "greatly reduced" and it was not clear who would perform it in the future.

He added that vets would have an important part to play in noting any emerging new diseases.

The Public Health Laboratory Service monitors the rise of new infections in humans, but a spokeswoman admitted that, depending on their nature and whether there was a big outbreak, it might be too late to take avoidance action by that stage.

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