AIDS-cure hope in plague village

RESIDENTS of a Peak District village decimated by the Black Death 350 years ago could hold the key to curing the victims of a modern-day plague.

Scientists have discovered that a rare, hereditary mutant gene found in the descendants of people who survived bubonic plague could prove vital in the search for a cure for AIDS.

The remarkable claim is made by medical experts following the testing of a hundred residents and relatives with proven links to survivors of the plague which devastated the village of Eyam (pictured) in 1665.

The gene, known as Delta 32, helps prevent bacteria invading and destroying the body’s immune system.

The facts are revealed by a top US molecular biologist with the National Institute of Health in a special Channel 4 documentary as part of the Secrets of the Dead series to be screened later this year.

The programme will highlight the testing of recognised descendants from the village by mouth swabs and samples.

Incredibly, the gene was found in about 14 per cent of volunteers compared to none from other unaffected areas of the country.

The findings are considered vital in trying to explain how and why some people survived the horrors of the Black Death that took the lives of 259 villagers and forced Eyam to adopt a dramatic policy of self-quarantine for 14 months until the disease was eradicated.

Eyam parish administrator, Joan Plant, 55, can trace her family history back to plague survivor Margaret Blackwell.

“We had to prove we were genuine descendants and the medical team took mouth swabs from all the families of survivors.

“They found some of us had this special gene, Delta 32. The results were so exciting that they did some more tests.

“And I think they are still looking to do even more research. I feel privileged to have been part of a family that sacrificed so much.

“There are many people still with family connections living in Eyam but they also traced others who had moved away.

“We were also told that in California, an American man of north European ancestry had also survived an AIDS project that had taken the lives of more than 70 of his friends.

“They said he too had this rare Delta 32 gene which apparently increases immunity to a whole range of other killer diseases.”

Margaret Blackwell, who survived with her brother Francis, was said to have drunk a jug of bacon fat while in a plague-induced delirium and her survival prompted many to believe the cure lay in bacon fat.

Mrs Plant said the TV team filmed in many local homes and claimed they were fascinated by family research and personal survival stories handed down the generations.

Bubonic plague, which has been described as the most dangerous disease known to mankind, first raged in Asia and the Roman Empire before sweeping across Europe in the 14th century.

It became rampant again in the 17th century, initially in Holland in 1663, then in London during the spring of 1665.

Despite precautions, the death rate rose dramatically within the city’s poorer quarters rising from 43 deaths in May, to 31,000 by August, when an unusually hot summer helped to spread the virus.

The plague brought devastation and panic to the city and even King Charles moved his court to Salisbury as a precaution.

Some 40,000 dogs and 80,000 cats were slaughtered as a precaution. However, this only added to the problem and meant plague-carrying rats had fewer natural enemies and the disease spread.

In Eyam, the plague arrived from London when infected cloth containing diseased fleas was delivered to an Eyam household.

Travelling tailor George Vicars was blamed. He died just two days later, becoming the first victim from 76 affected families in the village.

Rector William Mompesson and his predecessor Thomas Stanley, who persuaded villagers to impose a voluntary quarantine until the disease ran its course, prevented the further spread of the Black Death.

lyn.barton@ypn.co.uk