The History of Pandemics through the Years
A pandemic is a worst-case scenario when it comes to infectious diseases. Over the years, the world has faced its fair share of pandemics, some of which have been of epic proportions. While pandemics have lasted even during humanity’s hunter and gatherer days, the shift to agrarian life made more likely to suffer a pandemic.
Some of the most notable pandemics in the world over the years include:
430 B.C: Athens
The earliest recorded pandemic passed through Libya, Egypt, and Ethiopia. It crossed the Athenian walls as the Spartans laid siege and killed as much as two-thirds of the population. The disease’s symptoms included fever, thirst, bloody throat and tongue, red skin, and lesion. It’s possible the disease could have been typhoid fever.
165 A.D: Antonine Plague
The Antonine Plague started with the Huns, who infected the Germans who passed it to the Romans, then the returning troops spread it throughout the Roman Empire. It’s suspected the disease could have been an early appearance of smallpox with symptoms that included sore throat, diarrhoea, and fever.
250 A.D: Cyprian Plague
This plague is named after its first known victim, Christian bishop of Carthage. Victims exhibited diarrhoea, throat ulcers, vomiting, fever, and gangrenous hands and feet. It’s possible the disease started in Ethiopia then passed through Northern Africa into Rome, Egypt, and Northwards. The same plague had three outbreaks over the next three centuries.
541 A.D: Justinian Plague
The Justinian Plague started in Egypt and spread through Palestine and the Byzantine Empire and through the Mediterranean. The plague caused massive economic struggle and is also credited with creating an apocalyptic atmosphere that spurred the spread of Christianity.
Over the next two centuries, the disease killed about 50 million people, about 26% of the population.
11th Century: Leprosy
Leprosy had been around for ages. It grew into a pandemic in Europe in the middle ages, which resulted in the building of numerous Leprosy-focused hospitals. The slow-developing bacterial disease caused deformities, and sores and was believed to be a punishment from God.
1350: The Black Death
The Black Death pandemic wiped one-third of the world’s population. It was the second massive outbreak of the bubonic plague that possibly started in Asia and moved West in caravans. It entered through Sicily in 1347A.D. The plague quickly spread through Europe when the sufferers arrived at the port of Messina.
Bodies lay rotting on the ground, leaving a stench in the city. England and France were heavily affected by the plague that they called a truce to their war.
1492: The Columbian Exchange
When the Spanish arrived in the Caribbean, they passed diseases like smallpox, measles, and bubonic plague to the natives. Without previous exposure, the diseases devastated the indigenous people killing as much as 90% of the north and south populations.
This scenario repeated itself in the Aztec empire among other areas like the Island of Hispaniola, where most of the population was wiped out.
1665: The Great Plague of London
In yet another bubonic plague outbreak, 20% of London’s population died. The human death toll mounted, and hundreds of dogs and cats were slaughtered as possible causes of the disease. The plague spread through ports along the Thames and hit its peak in 1666 around the same time as the Great Fire of London.
1817: First Cholera Pandemic
Over the next 150 years, the world would experience a total of seven cholera pandemics. The disease started in Russia, where it killed one million people. The disease spread through faeces-infected food and water, and the bacterium was passed on to British soldiers who brought it to India killing millions more.
The disease spread to Africa, Indonesia, China, Japan, Germany, America, and Italy, killing a further 150,000 people. A vaccine was created in 1885, but the pandemics continued.
1855: The Third Plague Pandemic
It started in China before moving to India and Hong Kong. It was the third appearance of the bubonic plague, and it claimed 15 million victims. Initially, it was spread by fleas during the mining boom in Yunnan. India faced the most casualties, and the pandemic was used to make repressive policies that sparked a revolt against the British.
1875: Fiji Measles Pandemic
Once Fiji ceded to the British Empire, a royal party visited Australia as a gift from the Queen. The part arrived during a measles outbreak, and the royal party brought the disease back to their island. It was spread even further by the tribal heads and police who met with them upon their return.
In no time, the island was littered with corpses that were scavenged by wild animals. Entire villages died and were burned down. In the end, one-third of Fiji’s population had died.
1889: Russian Flu
The Russian Flu was the first significant flu pandemic. It started in Siberia and Kazakhstan then moved to Moscow, Finland, and Poland and into the rest of Europe. Within a year, it had crossed the ocean into North America and Africa, killing 360,000 people by the end of 1890.
1918: Spanish Flu
The Spanish Flu is responsible for 50 million deaths worldwide. It was first observed in Europe, parts of Asia, and the United States before quickly spreading to the rest of the world. The lack of effective vaccines or drugs to kill this flu strain made the situation worse and desperate.
The Flu disappeared in the summer of 1919 when most of the people had developed immunities or died.
1957: Asian Flu
The Asian Flu started in Hong Kong. It spread throughout China and then into the United States. It found its way to England, where it spread rapidly, killing over 140,000 people. The second wave of the Flu hit in 1958, resulting in roughly 1.1 million deaths globally and about 116,000 deaths in the United States alone. The pandemic was contained after a vaccine was developed.
AIDS was first identified in 1981. The disease destroys the immune system resulting in death by diseases that the body would usually fight off. Some of the symptoms associated with AIDS include fever, headaches, and enlarged lymph nodes. When the symptoms subside, carriers become highly infectious through blood and genital fluids.
The disease was first observed in American gay communities but is believed to have developed from the Chimpanzee virus from West Africa in the 1920s. So far, the disease has killed over 35 million people worldwide since its discovery. Unfortunately, the cure is yet to be found.
SARS was first identified in 2003 after several months. It’s believed to have originated from bats, spread to cats than to humans in China. The disease quickly spread to 26 other countries infecting 8,096 people and killing 774 people.
Symptoms of SARS include fever, head and body aches, and dry cough. It is spread through respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes.
Lessons learned from the SARS pandemic helped to improve responses to other diseases like H1N1, Zika, and Ebola.
COVID-19 was announced as a pandemic on March 11, 2020. The virus barrelled through 114 countries in three months and infected over 188,000 people (as of 19th July 2020). Caused by a new virus strain, the symptoms of the disease include fever, cough, and respiratory problems that can lead to pneumonia and death.
Why not also read: What is Coronavirus?
Like SARS, COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets. The virus has so far spread to over 160 countries with new infections each rising day.
Through the numerous pandemics over the years, humankind has shown its resilience rising above the difficulties and rebuilding itself. With glimpses of possible vaccines, it’s possible the end of the current pandemic caused by coronavirus could be nearing its end as well.