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Plagues: old and new

Stories of untreatable new diseases, from Aids to Ebola to Creutzfeldt-Jakob, fill the headlines. Might they foretell epidemics on the scale of the Black Death, and even the end of the human race? Or is modern medicine a match for such outbreaks? Christopher Wills, considers the evidence

Throughout our history, diseases have come and gone. Leprosy, which was widespread in Europe during the middle ages, inexplicably disappeared-though it remained a terrible scourge in much of the rest of the world. Between the end of the 15th century and the middle of the 16th century a mysterious disease called the sweating sickness broke out repeatedly in England and Wales. In 1529 it spread to the continent and then, somehow, burnt itself out. We have no idea what it was-the best guess is a viral encephalitis carried by mosquitoes. In the 17th century, bubonic plague, which had broken out…

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