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UNIVERSITY

Gerbils not rats caused Black Death: Oslo Uni

Forget what you learnt in school: rats were not to blame for the Bubonic Plague that wiped out a third of Europe’s population in the 1300s and then struck regularly for 400 years. The real culprit, according to a University of Oslo study, is the gerbil.

Gerbils not rats caused Black Death: Oslo Uni
Could this innocent creature be to blame for killing up to 60 percent of Europe's population? Photo: Shankar S/Flickr
Stenseth’s research, published in the latest edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, correlates  plague outbreaks in Europe with weather conditions in Europe and Asia, using tree rings and other indicators. 
 
What they found is that while outbreaks showed no correlation with weather conditions in Europe, they were closely correlated with conditions in Central Asia. 
 
“We show that wherever there were good conditions for gerbils and fleas in central Asia, some years later the bacteria shows up in harbour cities in Europe and then spreads across the continent,” he told the BBC
 
According to him, great gerbils and ground squirrels living in the steppes of north-West China and Kazakhstan are likely to have been the original sources of the pandemics, with fleas from the animals hopping off onto passing camels and traders ploughing the Silk Route.  
 
Europe’s plagues have previously been attributed to a one-off arrival of infected rats from Asia, after which it persisted in Europe’s rat population, from which it occasionally flared up into epidemics in humans. 
 
Stenseth believes instead that each pandemic originated in Asia in the same way as the Black Death. 
 
“We find plague to have been repeatedly re-imported along the same route as the Black Death was imported, triggered by large-scale climate events in Central Asia,” Boris Schmid, Stenseth co-author, also from the University of Oslo,  told The Guardian
 
The team now intends to carry out DNA analysis on samples of the plague bacteria (Yersinia pestis) take from the bodies of European plague victims killed during different outbreaks. 
 
“If the plague that arrived with the Black Death was the ancestor of all the strains of plague in Europe in the centuries afterwards, you will find a different pattern of relatedness than when plague in Europe was repeatedly re-imported from plague reservoirs in Asia,” Schmid told the Guardian.
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HEALTH

Norway shuts all schools and universities to fight coronavirus pandemic

Norway is closing all schools, kindergartens, and universities to slow the spread of coronavirus, in what Prime Minister Erna Solberg has called "the most far-reaching measures we have ever had in peacetime in Norway". (Paywall free).

Norway shuts all schools and universities to fight coronavirus pandemic
The law department at Oslo University. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
“All the country's kindergartens, schools, primary schools, secondary schools, technical colleges and universities are to be closed,” Solberg confirmed at a press conference held at her cabinet office on Thursday, according to a report by state broadcaster NRK
 
The measures, laid out in detail on the website of Norway's Health Ministry, will apply from 6pm on Thursday and remain in force until March 26. 
 
They also include a provision requiring everyone who has arrived in Norway from anywhere apart from the Nordic countries since February 27 to enter into compulsory quarantine in their homes, whether or not they are displaying any symptoms. 
 
Solberg said that though difficult, the measures were necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus. 
 
“We are in a difficult time, both for Norway and for the world,” she said, according to the VG newspaper. “The drastic measures we are now taking are in the hope of stopping the virus. We are doing this in solidarity with the elderly, the chronically ill, and others who are particularly at risk of developing a serious illness. We must protect ourselves to protect others.” 
 
She warned employees faced with unexpected childcare demands not to call on elderly relatives for help. “We must remind you who we should most be looking out for. We should therefore not hand over childcare to grandparents who are in the risk category.” 
 
Erna Solberg delivered the address at her cabinet offices. Photo: Norwegian Government
 
Camilla Stoltenberg, Division Director at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, estimated at the briefing that between 22,000 and 30,000 people would be hospitalised as a result of infection, with up to 7,600 requiring intensive treatment.
 
The measures announced include: 
 
  • Closure of all schools, kindergartens and universities.
  • A provision requiring primary schools and kindergartens to stay partially open in order to look after the children of key personnel in healthcare, transport and other critical social functions.  
  • Cultural events, sports events, gyms and businesses offering hairdressing, skincare, massage, body care and tattooing are all banned. Swimming pools will be closed.
  • Buffet restaurants are banned. Other restaurants, bars and cafés must ensure guests are kept at least one metre from one another.
  • A requirement for everyone arriving in Norway from outside the Nordic to enter quarantine, regardless of whether they have symptoms or not. This is retroactive to 27 February.
  • Restrictions on visitors to all the country's health facilities and the introduction of access control.
  • People are asked not to visit institutions housing vulnerable groups (old people's home, psychiatric hospitals, prisons etc).
  • Healthcare professionals working with patients are banned from travelling abroad.
Shops will continue to be open as normal, and the Ministry of Health advised people to shop normally and not seek to  hoard food.
 
The transport system will continue operating as normal, but people are encouraged to avoid unnecessary travel. 
 
Shortly after the press conference, King Harald V of Norway issued a statement saying that the Royal House was suspending all official engagements until Easter. 

“Our country is in a serious situation that affects individuals and society as a whole. It is crucial that we all participate in the national effort to avoid exposing ourselves or others to infection,” the release read. 

 
“It is therefore important that we all follow recommendations and orders from the authorities. We must contribute what we can to prevent the spread of the virus, and I would especially like to thank health professionals all over the country who are doing their utmost to remedy the developments. We all hope that the situation will soon turn around.” 

This article will be updated as more information becomes available.

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