Yersinia pestis

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Yersinia pestis (formerly Pasteurella pestis) is a Gram-negative rod-shaped bacterium belonging to the family Enterobacteriaceae. It is a facultative anaerobe that can infect humans and other animals.[1]

Human Y. pestis infection takes three main forms: pneumonic, septicemic, and the notorious bubonic plagues.[1] All three forms are widely believed to have been responsible for a number of high-mortality epidemics throughout human history, including the Plague of Justinian in 542 and the Black Death that accounted for the death of at least one-third of the European population between 1347 and 1353.[2] It has now been shown conclusively that these plagues originated in rodent populations in China.[3] More recently, Y. pestis has gained attention as a possible biological warfare agent and the CDC has classified it as a category A pathogen requiring preparation for a possible terrorist attack.

Y. pestis was discovered in 1894 by Alexandre Yersin, a Swiss/French physician and bacteriologist from the Pasteur Institute, during an epidemic of plague in Hong Kong.[4] Yersin was a member of the Pasteur school of thought. Kitasato ShibasaburĊ, a German-trained Japanese bacteriologist who practiced Koch's methodology was also engaged at the time in finding the causative agent of plague.[5] However, it was Yersin who actually linked plague with Yersinia pestis. Originally named Pasteurella pestis, the organism was renamed in 1967.

Every year, thousands of cases of plague are still reported to the World Health Organization although with proper treatment, the prognosis for victims is now much better. A five to sixfold increase in cases occurred in Asia during the time of the Vietnam war, possibly due to the disruption of ecosystems and closer proximity between people and animals. Plague also has a detrimental effect on non-human mammals. In the United States of America, animals such as the black-tailed prairie dog and the endangered black-footed ferret are under threat from the disease.


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