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Dancing with death

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By Kirsten Peters

Once I had a case of influenza so bad I missed close to a month of graduate school.  I ran a fever and coughed until it felt like my whole world was turned upside down.
Because I’m a geologist, not a medical doctor, I nicknamed that bout of illness “the plague.”  But what I experienced was a walk in the park compared to the real McCoy.
The sheer virulent power of plague is a tale of human history that’s a warning ringing across the centuries. But the story takes its most interesting turn recently, as science has been unraveling more and more mysteries of the Black Death.
The first widespread outbreak of the plague we know about started in 541 A.D.  
Called the Justinian Plague because it started under Byzantine emperor Justinian I, it ran off and on for several decades.
We don’t know much about how widespread the Justinian plague was in Europe because written records were not being kept in many places at that time. But it certainly killed a meaningful fraction of the population we do know about, at one point killing thousands per day in Constantinople (Istanbul).


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