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Infection, Genetics and Evolution
In recent decades, the issue of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases has become an increasingly important area of concern in public health. Today, like centuries ago, infectious diseases confront us with the fear of death and have heavily influenced social behaviors and policy decisions at local, national and international levels.
Remarkably, an infectious disease such as plague, which is disseminated from one country to another mainly by commercial transportation, remains today, as it was in the distant past, a threat for human societies. Throughout history, plague outbreaks prevailed on numerous occasions in Mediterranean harbors, including Marseille in the south of France. A few months ago, the municipal authorities of the city of Marseille, announced the archaeological discovery of the last remnants of a “lazaretto” or “lazaret” (http://20.minutes.fr, March 3th, 2012), a place equipped with an infirmary and destined to isolate ship passengers quarantined for health reasons. More recently, on September 16th, 2012, the anchor of the ship “Grand Saint Antoine” responsible for bringing the plague to Marseille in 1720, was recovered and it will be restored before being presented to the public in 2013 (http://www.libemarseille.fr/henry/2012/09/lancre-du-bateau-qui-amena-la-grande-peste-%C3%A0-marseille.html).
In the light of these recent archaeological discoveries, it is quite instructive to revisit the sequence of events and decisions that led to the outbreak of the Great Plague of Marseille between 1720 and 1723. It comes to the evidence that although the threat was known and health surveillance existed with quite effective preventive measures such as quarantine, the accumulation of small negligence led to one of the worst epidemics in the city (about 30% of casualties among the inhabitants). This is an excellent model to illustrate the issues we are facing with emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases today and to define how to improve biosurveillance and response tomorrow. Importantly, the risk of plague dissemination by transport trade is negligible between developed countries, however, this risk still persists in developing countries. In addition, the emergence of antibiotic resistant strains of Yersinia pestis, the infectious agent of plague, is raising serious concerns for public health.