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Plague That Hit Athens Debated in Journal

--Compiled from Times staff and wire service reports

Researchers doing scientific and historical detective work on the plague that swept Athens in 430 BC are at odds over whether a combination of influenza and the bacteria responsible for toxic-shock syndrome was the source of the disease.

The latest work on the subject comes from A. J. Holladay of Trinity College in Oxford, England, who writes in the New England Journal of Medicine that such a combination is highly unlikely.

“The symptoms of this alleged modern descendant cannot be made to match (the historical record) except by the exercise of imagination and the adjustment of evidence,” he asserts. “It is difficult to believe that such a disease survived during these 2.5 millenia without surfacing again anywhere in the world where it could have been observed.”

Holladay, who argues that the plague, one of the great medical mysteries that helped set the stage for the defeat of Athens by Sparta 30 years later, was caused by a now-extinct disease, was commenting on a hypothesis proposed last year in the medical journal by Dr. Alexander Langmuir of Chilmark, Mass., and researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

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The researchers said a detailed account of the plague by the Greek historian Thucydides provided enough evidence to conclude that the plague was a combination of flu and staphylococcus, which causes toxic-shock syndrome. They dubbed the disease Thucydides syndrome.

Langmuir, a retired epidemiologist, and the Arizona team defended their hypothesis in an essay accompanying Holladay’s comments.

“Influenza with a staphylococcal super-infection of the toxic-shock type provides the best model to account, in modern medical terms, for the syndrome described by Thucydides,” they said.

Six cases, including two deaths, have recently been attributed to that combination of diseases in Minnesota, they said.

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