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When Plague Strikes: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS


Compassionate and arresting, this exploration of three major diseases that have changed the course of history?the bubonic plague, smallpox, and AIDS?chronicles their fearsome death toll, their lasting social, economic, and political implications, and how medical knowledge and treatments have advanced as a result of the crises they have occasioned. "A book that would serve well for reports, but it is also a ...

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Compassionate and arresting, this exploration of three major diseases that have changed the course of history—the bubonic plague, smallpox, and AIDS—chronicles their fearsome death toll, their lasting social, economic, and political implications, and how medical knowledge and treatments have advanced as a result of the crises they have occasioned. "A book that would serve well for reports, but it is also a fascinating read."—SLJ.

Best Books of 1995 (SLJ)
Notable Children's Trade Books in Social Studies 1996 (NCSS/CBC)
1995 Young Adult Editors' Choices (BL)
1995 Top of the List Non Fiction (BL)
1996 Best Books for Young Adults (ALA)
Notable Children's Books of 1996 (ALA)

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Editorial Reviews

The ALAN Review - Gerry McBroom
Tracing the "Black Death" from 430 B.C., small pox from 1157 B.C., and AIDS from 1974, Giblin uses extensive research to examine how these pandemic diseases affected civilization. He graphically describes how "every major plague ... seems to have brought out the best as well as the worst in people." The best is shown in those who have cared for the afflicted despite risks to themselves and those who have brought cures and education to others (like Dr. Edward Jenner and Magic Johnson). The worst is shown in the persecution of disease victims, such as the Christian treatment of Jews who contracted the Black Death, gay bashing, and the ostracizing of Ryan White. As a complement to the teaching of history, medicine, sociology, religion, and even art, this book with woodcuts by David Frampton will be useful for high-school readers who will appreciate an honest look at how humanity reacts to deadly diseases.
Children's Literature - Jyotsna Sreenivasan
A book about plagues? How macabre! But this page-turner is not just about people dying in droves. It is also about attempts to solve medical mysteries. It is also about how human nature has been quick to blame diseases on certain elements of the population, such as Jews and Asians (the bubonic plague), or gay men (AIDS). It is also about the social changes wrought by mass deaths. For example, after the bubonic plague struck, the powers of the church and the nobility were weakened: people no longer had as much faith in the church or in God, and because of the shortage of labor, the wages of the working class skyrocketed. One interesting tidbit: a precursor to vaccination was actually practiced by old women in Turkey, who rendered people immune to serious smallpox attacks by purposely "inoculating" them with a small amount of smallpox scab. This inoculation technique was widely promoted throughout the world and used until the smallpox vaccination, developed from cowpox, was discovered to be safer and cheaper. In the last section of the book, the AIDS epidemic is traced from the first death of a westerner from AIDS, through the race to identify the virus, to the present. A fascinating book.
School Library Journal
Gr 7 UpWhile the Black Death, smallpox, and AIDS may seem to have little in common, Giblin draws parallels between them that are both striking and fascinating. The Black Death was often blamed on Jews, leading to hatred, mistrust, and violence against them. In much the same way, many people have blamed AIDS on homosexuals. The author's tracing of the medical community's fearful and confused reactions to these diseases and his portrayal of the infighting among AIDS researchers are certainly eye-opening. Overall, the text is brutally matter-of-fact. The medical terms are clearly explained and Giblin moves deftly from one historical highlight to another, touching briefly, yet thoroughly, on the major events that make up the history of each disease. This is a book that would serve YAs well for reports, but it is also a fascinating read.Melissa Hudak, North Suburban District Library, Roscoe, IL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780064461955
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/1997
  • Series: Nonfiction Bks.
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 183,424
  • Age range: 8 - 12 Years
  • Lexile: 1190L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

James Cross Giblin is the author of eighteen books for young readers, many of which have received awards and honors. Twelve of his titles, most recently Charles A. Lindbergh: A Human Hero and When Plague Strikes: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS have been named Notable Children's Books by the American Library Association. In 1996 he received the Washington Post—Children's Book Guild Award for Nonfiction for his body of work. Mr. Giblin lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt



Early in 1347, a mysterious disease attacked people living near the Black Sea in what is now southern Ukraine. Its victims suffered from headaches, felt weak and tired, and staggered when they tried to walk.

By the third day, the lymph nodes in the sufferers' groins, or occasionally their armpits, began to swell. Soon they reached the size of hens' eggs. These swellings became known as buboes, from the Greek word for groin, boubon. They gave the disease its official name: the bubonic plague.

The victim's heart beat wildly as it tried to pump blood through the swollen tissues. The nervous system started to collapse, causing dreadful pain and bizarre movements of the arms and legs. Then, as death neared, the mouth gaped open and the skin blackened from internal bleeding. The end usually came on the fifth day.

Within weeks of the first reported cases, hundreds of people in the Black Sea region had sickened and died. Those who survived were terrified. Like the citizens of Athens at the time of the Plague, they had no medicines with which to fight the disease. As it continued to spread, their fear changed to frustration, and then to anger. Someone--some outsider--must be responsible for bringing this calamity upon them.

The most likely candidates were the Italian traders who operated in the region. They bartered Italian goods for the silks and spices that came over the caravan routes from the Far East, then shipped the Eastern merchandise on to Italy. Although many of the traders had lived in the region for years, they were still thought of as being different. For one thing, they were Christianswhile most of the natives were Muslims.

Deciding the Italians were to blame for the epidemic, the natives gathered an army and prepared to attack their trading post. The Italians fled to a fortress they had built on the coast of the Black Sea. There the natives besieged them until the dread disease broke out in the Muslim army.

The natives were forced to withdraw. But before they did--according to one account--they gave the Italians a taste of the agony their people had been suffering. They loaded catapults with the bodies of some of their dead soldiers and hurled them over the high walls into the fortress. By doing so, they hoped to infect the Italians with the plague.

As fast as the bodies landed, the Italians dumped them into the sea. However, they did not move quickly enough, for the disease had already taken hold among them. In a panic, the traders loaded three ships and set sail for their home port of Genoa in Italy. They made it only as far as Messina, on the island of Sicily, before the rapid spread of the disease forced them to stop.

This account of what happened in southern Ukraine may or may not be true. But it is a fact that the bubonic plague--the Black Death--arrived in Sicily in October 1347, carried by the crew of a fleet from the east. All the sailors on the ships were dead or dying. In the words of a contemporary historian, they had "sickness clinging to their very bones."

The harbormasters at the port of Messina ordered the sick sailors to remain on board, hoping in this way to prevent the disease from spreading to the town. They had no way of knowing that the actual carriers of the disease had already left the ships. Under cover of night, when no one could see them, they had scurried down the ropes that tied the ships to the dock and vanished into Messina.

The carriers were black rats and the fleas that lived in their hair. Driven by an unending search for food, the rats' ancestors had migrated slowly westward along the caravan routes. They had traveled in bolts of cloth and bales of hay, and the fleas had come with them.

Although it was only an eighth of an inch long, the rat flea was a tough, adaptable creature. It depended for nourishment on the blood of its host, which it obtained through a daggerlike snout that could pierce the rat's skin. And in its stomach the flea often carried thousands of the deadly bacteria that caused the bubonic plague.

The bacteria did no apparent harm to the flea, and a black rat could tolerate a moderate amount of them, too, without showing ill effects. But sometimes the flea contained so many bacteria that they invaded the rat's lungs or nervous system when the flea injected its snout. Then the rat died a swift and horrible death, and the flea had to find a new host.

Aiding the tiny flea in its search were its powerful legs, which could jump more than 150 times the creature's length. In most instances the flea landed on another black rat. Not always, though. If most of the rats in the vacinity were already dead or dying from the plague, the flea might leap to a human being instead. As soon as it had settled on the human's skin, the flea would begin to feed, and the whole process of infection would be repeated.

No doubt it was fleas, not Italian traders, that brought the bubonic plague to the Black Sea region, and other fleas that carried the disease on to Sicily. But no one at the time made the connection. To the people of the fourteenth century, the cause of the Black Death--which they called "the pestilence"--was a complete and utter mystery.

When the first cases of the plague were reported in Messina, the authorities ordered the Italian fleet and all its sick crew members to leave the port at once. Their action came too late, however. Within days the disease had spread throughout the city and the surrounding countryside.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2001

    A Great and Educational Book for All Ages

    This book was very well writen and easy to read. It gives discriptive information about the topics, including the history of each. I found this book highly useful for reports on the Black Death, Smallpox, and AIDS.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2000

    A very good book

    The book was very interesting and informative without being drawn-out and over-dramatic. It simply outlined the history of all three epidemics with ample historical information. The entire book's content was brilliantly illustrated through sufficient detail that didn't over-crowd the most important aspects of its general purpose to inform the reader of the greatest epidemics that ever existed. I suggest this book to anyone interested in the Black Death, Smallpox, or AIDS, or anyone who wants to learn about one of the afore mentioned diseases.

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