Fleas, Rats and Filth Plague Medieval London

Rats and fleas were responsible for the plagueThe first of three BBC Filthy Cities programmes was aired last night and started off with medieval London. As presenter Dan Snow waded through the grimy, putrid streets filled with filth he relayed how sewage, animal excrement, rotting fish and animal entrails were cast into the street to create an open cesspit of hell. Under the cloak of darkness (you wouldn’t want to clap sight of such horrors in broad daylight) the night-soil men would shovel over 50 tonnes of stinking nastiness and cart it out the city and away from the noses of Londoners.

Black ratSoon the stench was the least of their worries. In 1348 black rats jumped off a ship, gorged on the open buffet otherwise known as the streets of London, and bred profusely. The connection hadn’t yet been made between filth, rats and disease. Also unbenownst to the Londoners, the rats brought along a deadly hitch-hiker – the flea.

The fleas jumped off the plague infected rats and onto the people. By biting humans they passed over 100 bacteria in their guts including the bubonic plague. In total 50,000 Londoners died of the Black Death in two years.

Unfortunately the plague isn’t confined to history. There are 3000 worldwide cases of bubonic plague every year. In 1914 there was an outbreak in New Orleans. Take a look at this image from National Geographic of scientists studying rats for the plague. The World Health Organisation records bubonic plague outbreaks and has reported recent cases in sub-Saharan Africa.

Bubonic plague needs to be treated immediately or there is a 30-60% survival rate. One of the key preventative measures is rodent control and managing invasive species.  Vic Simpson of the government’s Veterinary Laboratories Agencies outlines why bubonic plague is a real threat to Britain today in this BBC report.

Rentokil operates in 52 countries and we have first hand experience of establishing  pest control measures to manage bubonic plague outbreaks.

Tune into BBC’s Filthy Cities

To  give you an idea of how repulsive the streets were the BBC has created some scratch and sniff cards which can be used whilst watching the programme. The cards are available from libraries until stocks last.

Next week Dan Snow sniffs out the tanneries in stinking Paris. Tune in on Tuesday 12 April, BBC 2 at 9pm.

If you missed Filthy Cities catch it on iplayer now.

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