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The past, present and future of the bubonic plague - Sharon N. DeWitte

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The bubonic plague, which killed around 1/5 of the world’s population in the 14th century, is still around today -- but it now claims only a few thousand lives each year. How did that number shrink so drastically? Sharon N. DeWitte investigates the causes and effects of the black death and explains how knowing this information can help us prepare for any future outbreaks of the disease.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Sharon N. DeWitte
  • Director Steff Lee
  • Animator Jack Ross
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Narrator Michelle Snow

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Sharon N DeWitte (Ph.D., The Pennsylvania State University, 2006) is a biological anthropologist with interests in human osteology, paleodemography, paleoepidemiology, and infectious and epidemic diseases. She studies the mortality patterns, and the causes and consequences of medieval plagues, including the Black Death of 1347-1351.She does this by using large skeletal samples from Europe. Dr. DeWitte is particularly interested in how biological and social factors affect an individual’s risk of death during epidemics as devastating as the Black Death.She also studies how and why those risks change over time, and how epidemics shape demography and health. She is interested in the identity and molecular evolution of the causative agent of medieval plague, and, more generally, the coevolution between humans and pathogens.

To learn more about Dr. DeWitte’s research and to access several academic articles on medieval plague bioarchaeology and ancient DNA, check out her website.

It has been found that the Black Death is the ancestor to all recent plagues that have occurred on Earth. Check out this link featuring Henrik Poinar where he discusses this research and why it is so important to study diseases of the past. In fact, recent ideas have surfaced that to stop the spread of the Ebola virus, countries may have to use tactics similar to those used when fighting other epidemics. Check out this N.Y. Times article and visuals about this idea.Perhaps by studying diseases of the past, we can better prepare diseases of the future.

How powerful are plagues? Could this happen today? Check out this video link to learn what scientists predict and which factors may allow this to occur.To learn more about how pandemics spread, complete the TED Ed lesson: How Pandemics Spread. Quarantine is a word used to describe isolation during a plague. Learn the history behind the word (it has a lot to do with the Black Plague) by watching this quick TED Ed video: Mysteries of Vernacular:Quarantine

Media coverage of Black Death and Plague of Justinian research can be found via the links below:

http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111025/full/478444a.html

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/jan/28/plague-victims-shed-light-disease-origins

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/mar/29/black-death-not-spread-rat-fleas-london-plague

http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27293220

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/01/29/267598868/ancient-plagues-dna-revived-from-a-1-500-year-old-tooth

To read more perspectives on plague and other diseases, check out the Contagions blog.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animation lessons feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Sharon N. DeWitte
  • Director Steff Lee
  • Animator Jack Ross
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Narrator Michelle Snow

Share

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