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Glasnost | March 23, 2019

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Nils Stenseth: “If you wait 5 or more days, you are in trouble.”

Nils Stenseth: “If you wait 5 or more days, you are in trouble.”
Silvia Donker

De Zwarte Dood maakt tegenwoordig jaarlijks nog steeds duizenden slachtoffers. De meesten van ons kennen het eigenlijk alleen uit de geschiedenisboeken als die brute epidemie uit de middeleeuwen waardoor ongeveer de helft van Europa stierf. Via de zijderoute brachten destijds knaagdieren vanuit Azië de ziekte hierheen. Maar nog steeds woedt de pest in sommige delen van de wereld bij vlagen. Een belangrijke factor hierbij zou wel eens het klimaat kunnen zijn.

Vanavond is er bij Studium Generale een lezing over de ziekte die gegeven wordt door professor Nils Christian Stenseth, een Noorse bioloog die zich focust op ecologie en evolutie. Hij heeft onderzoek gedaan naar hoe de pest-bacterie zich over de eeuwen heen heeft ontwikkeld, en welke rol het klimaat daarbij speelt.

Sonja belde maandag naar Noorwegen voor een interview over deze onuitroeibare ziekte.

Lees/Luister hier het interview terug:

Why is the Black Plague not something of the past?
Well the plague, the bacterium – Yersinia pestis -, that caused the black death is [what we see] today also. It’s found in many places in the world, not the least in Central Asia but also in Africa, South and North America, but not in Europe. It is found in small rodent reservoirs around the world. I have studied this in Central Asia and the most recently we have been linking what goes on in Central Asian plague epidemics within rodent-population with what happened in Europe in the medieval period.

The Black Plague that we know happened in Europe, and this current plague is in a lot of places, but not Europe. Why not?
The reason why it’s not in Europe today is twofold. First of all: increased hygiene and knowledge about the discease. But also the fact that – I’m quite sure – there is no rodent reservoir in Europe today nor has there been a rodent reservoir that could maintain the bacterium for a longer period.

Your research focuses on the influence of climate-changes in epidemics. WHat does climate has to do with the plague?
It depends on where you are. The effect of climate variatons will be different depending on where in the world you are. For instance in Central Asia the kind of climatic changes that are occurring right now will lead to an increased level of plague appearances. However if you go to Southern China the climatic changes are such that the rodent reservoir for plague respond to this changing climate by making it less likely to have plague outbreaks. So it varies. But in Central Asia you are likely to see more cases of human plague infections in the years to come. It won’t be mayor epidemics, because we know much more about it.

If you go to the doctor within four days after you have been infected, you are fine. But if you wait five or more days, you are in trouble.  

“The Plague is not primarily a human disease”

This bacterium has never been completely wiped out. Do you think it ever will be?
I don’t think it ever will be wiped out. If it’s going to be eradicated, you will have to eradicate the rodent population and fleas in large areas and this simply is not possible.

As a biologist you might appreciate variety, and regret any decrease in species, but might this plague bacterium be something you’d rather see wiped out? Would it effect nature in a negative way if it were?
It will affect nature in a negative way if it will be wiped out. As a biologist I think it’s important that we learn as much as we possibly can about what regulates the dynamics, and then be proactive. So that in every condition or such a plgue likely that we know about this, that docters know about this and we can treat patients very fast and it won’t spread in the human population.
It is not primarily a human disease, there is only an occational spill over to the human population.

What is currently occupying your mind above all?
We have published a paper earlier this year, and that work suggests that the plague came into Europe in waves. So waves that happened to come in ten of fifteen years after good condition for the plague to happen in Central Asia. It came to harbour cities and then spread around. What we’re after now is that we try to identify the ancient DNA to see whether there is a great deal of variation among the bacterium through time as it has been preserved in the harbour cities.

…En dat laatste, daar gaat de lezing van vanavond over. Benieuwd geworden? Dr. Stenseth spreekt dus vanavond om 20:00 in het academiegebouw.