Articles > Typhoid fever led to the fall of Athens

Typhoid fever led to the fall of Athens

January 24, 2006 — Scientists have for many years debated the cause of the Plague of
Athens. Analysis carried out by Manolis Papagrigorakis and colleagues
using DNA collected from teeth from an ancient Greek burial pit points
to typhoid fever as the disease responsible for this devastating
epidemic. The study appears on the online version of The International
Journal of Infectious Diseases (IJID) published by Elsevier on behalf
of the International Society for Infectious Diseases.

plague that began in Ethiopia and passed through Egypt and Libya to
Greece in 430-426 B.C. changed the balance of power between Athens and
Sparta, ending the Golden Age of Pericles and Athenian dominance in the
ancient world. It is thought that up to one third of the Athenians,
including their charismatic leader, Pericles, perished in the epidemic.

Until now our understanding of this outbreak was based on the account
by the fifth century B.C. Greek historian Thucydides, who himself was
taken ill with the plague but recovered. Despite Thucydides’ detailed
description, researchers have not managed to agree on the identity of
the plague and several diseases, including bubonic plague, smallpox,
anthrax and measles have been implicated in the emergence and spread of
this epidemic.

A mass burial pit unearthed in the Kerameikos
ancient cemetery of Athens and dated back to the time of the historical
outbreak, provided the required skeletal material for the investigation
of ancient microbial DNA. Aided by modern DNA recovery and
amplification techniques, Papagigorakis et al used dental pulp to
identify DNA sequences similar to those of the modern day Salmonella
enterica serovar Typhi, the organism that causes typhoid fever. The
results of this study point to typhoid fever as the probable cause of
the Plague of Athens.

Typhoid fever is transmitted by
contaminated food or water, and nowadays the disease is most common in
developing countries and in travellers returning from these countries.

author Dr Manolis J Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens says:
"Studying the historical aspects of infectious diseases can be a
powerful tool for several disciplines to learn from. We believe this
report to be of outstanding importance for many scientific fields,
since it sheds light to one of the most debated enigmas in medical


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