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Worldwide distribution of plague infected animals 1998
Third Pandemic is the designation of a major plague pandemic that began in the Yunnanmarker province in Chinamarker in 1855. This episode of bubonic plague spread to all inhabited continents, and ultimately killed more than 12 million people in Indiamarker and China alone. According to the World Health Organization, the pandemic was considered active until 1959, when worldwide casualties dropped to 200 per year.

Bubonic plague is an infectious disease that is widely thought to have caused several epidemics or pandemics throughout history; including two previous pandemics commonly designated as the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death. New research suggests Black Death is lying dormant.

Casualty patterns indicate that waves of this late 19th century/early 20th century pandemic may have been from two different sources. The first was primarily bubonic and was carried around the world through ocean-going trade, through transporting infected persons, rats and cargoes harboring fleas. The second, more virulent strain, was primarily pneumonic in character with a strong person-to-person contagion. This strain was largely confined to Asia, particularly Manchuria and Mongoliamarker.

Pattern of the pandemic

The bubonic plague was endemic in populations of infected ground rodents in central Asia, and was a known cause of death among migrant and established human populations in that region for centuries; however, an influx of new people due to political conflicts and global trade led to the distribution of this disease throughout the world.

Outbreak in China

The initial outbreak was in China's Yunnanmarker Province in the 1850s. The disease was stable within the province, but was spread due to a Muslim rebellion. The rebellion displaced local tribes, and also changed animal harvesting practices, leading to greater contact with infected animals. In addition, the rebellion meant that refugees from the conflict moved south, into regions of China with larger populations. The plague went with them, producing an increasing number of casualties. In the city of Canton, beginning in March 1894, the disease killed 60,000 people in just a few weeks. Daily water traffic with the nearby city of Hong Kongmarker rapidly spread the plague. Within two months, after 100,000 deaths, the death rates dropped below epidemic rates, although the disease continued to be endemic in Hong Kong until 1929 .

Political impact in colonial India

Directions for searchers, Pune plague of 1897
came to Indiamarker in 1896, most likely from Hong Kong where the epidemic had been festering since 1894. Over the next thirty years, the country would lose 12.5 million people to the disease. Almost all cases were bubonic, with only a very small percentage changing to pneumonic plague.(Orent, p. 185) The disease was initially seen in port cities, beginning with Bombay (now Mumbaimarker), but later emerged in Punemarker, Kolkatamarker and Karachimarker (now in Pakistanmarker). By 1899, the outbreak spread to smaller communities and rural areas in many regions of India. Overall, the impact of plague epidemics was greatest in western and northern India – in the provinces then designated as Bombay, Punjab and the United Provinces - while eastern and southern India were not as badly affected.

The colonial government's measures to control the disease included quarantine, isolation camps, travel restrictions and the exclusion of India's traditional medical practices. Restrictions on the populations of the coastal cities were established by Special Plague Committees with overreaching powers, and enforced by the British military. Indians found these measures culturally intrusive and generally repressive and tyrannical. Government strategies of plague control underwent significant changes during 1898-1899. By that time it was apparent that the use of force in enforcing plague regulations was proving counter-productive and, now that the plague had spread to rural areas, enforcement in larger geographic areas would be impossible. At this time, British health officials began to press for widespread vaccination using Waldemar Haffkine’s plague vaccine, although the government stressed that inoculation was not compulsory. British authorities also authorized the inclusion of practitioners of indigenous systems of medicine into plague prevention programs.

Repressive government actions to control the plague gave the Pune nationalists an opportunity to berate the government publicly. On 22 June 1897, the Chapekar brothers, young Pune brahmins, shot and killed W. C. Rand, an Indian Civil Services officer acting as Pune Special Plague Committee chairman, and his military escort, Lt. Ayerst. The action of the Chapekars has been considered the worst violence against political authority seen anywhere in the world during the third plague pandemic. The government also found the nationalist press guilty of incitement. Independence activist Bal Gangadhar Tilak was charged with sedition for his writings as editor of the Kesari newspaper. He was sentenced to eighteen months rigorous imprisonment. This punishment made him a living martyr to the struggle for Indianmarker independence.

Public reaction to the exceptionally intrusive health measures enacted by the British Indian state ultimately revealed the political constraints of medical intervention in the country. These experiences were formative in the development of India's modern public health services.

Global Distribution

The network of global shipping ensured the widespread distribution of the disease over the next few decades. Recorded outbreaks include:

Each of these areas, as well as Great Britainmarker, Francemarker and other areas of Europe, continued to experience plague outbreaks and casualties until the 1950s. The last significant outbreak of plague associated with the pandemic occurred in Peru and Argentinamarker in 1945.

Disease research

Researchers working in Asia during the "Third Pandemic" identified plague vectors and the plague bacillus. In 1894, in Hong Kong, French bacteriologist (born Swiss) Alexandre Yersin isolated the responsible bacterium (Yersinia pestis) and determined the common mode of transmission. Japanese physician and researcher Shibasaburo Kitasato initially mis-identified the bacterium. In 1898, French researcher Paul-Louis Simond demonstrated the role of fleas as a vector.

The disease is caused by a bacterium usually transmitted by the bite of fleas from an infected host, often a black rat. The bacteria are transferred from the blood of infected rats to the rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopsis). The bacillus multiplies in the stomach of the flea, blocking it. When the flea next bites a mammal, the consumed blood is regurgitated along with the bacillus into the bloodstream of the bitten animal. Any serious outbreak of plague is started by other disease outbreaks in the rodent population. During these outbreaks, infected fleas that have lost their normal hosts seek other sources of blood. The bacterium which causes this disease, Yersinia pestis, was named for Yersin. His discoveries led in time to modern treatment methods, including insecticides, the use of antibiotics and eventually plague vaccines.

The British colonial government in India pressed medical researcher Waldemar Haffkine to develop a plague vaccine. After three months of persistent work with a limited staff, a form for human trials was ready. On January 10, 1897 Haffkine tested it on himself. After the initial test was reported to the authorities, volunteers at the Byculla jail were used in a control test, all inoculated prisoners survived the epidemics, while seven inmates of the control group died. By the turn of the century, the number of inoculees in India alone reached four million. Haffkine was appointed the Director of the Plague Laboratory (now called Haffkine Institute) in Bombay.

See also


  • Gregg, Charles T. "Plague: An Ancients Disease in the Twentieth Century". Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1985.
  • Kelly, John. "The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time". New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2005. ISBN 0-06-000692-7.
  • McNeill, William H. "Plagues and People". New York: Anchor Books, 1976. ISBN 0-385-12122-9.
  • Orent, Wendy. "Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease". New York: Free Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-3685-8.
  • Gandhi, M.K. The Plague Panic in South Africa



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