History of Major Pandemics Including COVID-19

Before digging into the history of pandemics, let us keep the basics clear like

What is a pandemic?

A pandemic disease is an epidemic that has spread over a large area, that is; a state, a country, a continent or even the entire world.

What’s an epidemic?

An Epidemic is when a disease spreads rapidly within a community within a short period of time.

What is endemic?

An endemic is when a disease is restricted to a particular place. 

Now we know the difference between these fatal terms, let’s have a look at the history of pandemics.

History of Infectious Diseases: worst pandemics ever

1. Black Death (1347 – 1351)

Black death is among the top diseases that wiped out populations. It was the deadliest disease on Earth. Black Death was a global pandemic caused by yersinia pestis. It hit Europe and Asia in the mid of the 14th century. It all started when 12 ships sailed across the black sea and reached Messina. It was a great surprise to the people when they found out that most people on the ship were dead.

By the early 1340s, the disease hit China, Persia, India, Syria, Egypt. According to recent research, the pathogens of black death existed in Europe from as early as 3000 BCE. The symptoms of the black plague consisted of fever, chills, swellings, vomiting, and then death.

It is said to have been spread by fleas and rats and by air. The Black Death never really ended as it was again seen many years later. The infected were then isolated for 40 days or a quarantine. Yes, This was the 1st time when we used quarantine word.

It killed an estimate of 200 million people, which was one-third of the European population. By the 1370s the population of England reduced by 50%.

2. New World Smallpox Outbreak (1520 – Onwards)

Smallpox is said to have originated in either India or Egypt around 3,000 years ago. Evidence of smallpox has also been found in Egyptian mummies. It was officially eradicated in 1977. It has symptoms such as fever, fatigue, headache, severe back pain, etc. 

This infectious disease is caused by the Variola virus and can be transmitted from person to person or via contaminated items. It is said to have spread to the Americans and Australians from the Africans and Europeans and killed about 90% of the new world population.

3. Spanish Flu (1918 – 1919)

Spanish flu infected 500 million people that is 1/3 of the population of that time. It is caused by the H1N1 virus and is transmitted by pigs. The disease associated with it is influenza. It was a global pandemic which was spreading rapidly across the world. The outbreak began in 1918 and was most probably an effect of world war 1. The soldiers who were malnourished and weak and lived in damp and dirty conditions were mainly affected. The disease gradually spread to higher ranks and then across the world. It is named Spanish flu because Spain was the earliest country to experience Spanish flu.

4. Plague of Justinian (541 – 542)

The outbreak of the plague can be traced back to Egypt. It earned the name Justinian from the ruler of the Byzantine empire of that time. It is said to have spread like the bubonic plague of the modern era. It may have originated in China or India and then have spread to Egypt and other parts of the world. It is said to have been caused by Yersinia pestis, which is also the reason for black death.

The cure for the Justinian plague is yet unknown. Many treatments were attempted such as consuming vinegar and water and the patients were asked to carry flowers with them. It is the disease that wiped out the population of the world by 10%. It killed around 30 to 50 million people with the fatality rate of 10,000 people per day. Plague of Justinian is among the worst plague ever.

5. HIV/AIDS (1981 – present)

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus and this virus results in a disease called AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) which originated in chimpanzees and then crossed to humans. It was initially SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) in chimpanzees, a close relative of HIV. It spread into humans because of hunting and eating chimps. It is among the top illnesses in the world.

It spreads through contact with an infected person by sharing drug needles, blood, and most commonly through unprotected sex. It is not completely curable even with the help of medication. The symptoms of aids vary in three stages. It is highly believed that HIV originated in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Luc Antoine Montagnier, a French virologist is credited to have discovered AIDS. 

6. Third Plague Pandemic (1885)

It was the major bubonic plague that killed indiscriminately and wiped out the population. Caused by Yersinia Pestis, the same bacillus also caused the black death, first plague, and the second plague. After the black death, the great plague of London, etc. the plague re-emerged in Yunnan, China as the third plague pandemic in 1855. 

The plague gradually spread to Hong Kong, Bombay, Australia, Europe, etc. The third plague pandemic kept clearing the world’s population for the next five decades. The plague was active until 1960. It was spread through the bite of rats and fleas. Bizarre Fact: Three of history’s deadliest pandemics (Black Death, Plague of Justinian and Third plague pandemic) were caused by a single bacterium, Yersinia pestis, a fatal infection otherwise known as the plague.

7. Antonine Plague (165 – 180)

The main cause of the Antonine plague is still unknown. It was brought to Rome by the troops who were returning from the northeast. According to research most likely the plague emerged in china. It is also termed as the plague of Galen. It had the fatality rate of 2000 deaths a day. Galen, a Greek physician, described the symptoms of this plague in his book Methodus Medendi. It killed about 5 million people. Some scholars think it may be measles or smallpox.

8. Asian Flu (1957 – 1958)

Asian flu was caused by H2N2 viruses in 1957. It emerged in east Asia from an avian influenza A virus. Its symptoms consisted of fever, body aches, coughs, chills, weakness, etc. It was a category 2 pandemic outbreak of avian influenza. Is also known as the actual forgotten plague.

The plague originated in Guizhou, China, and spread across the world in no time. It also had a poor economic impact on the world. It was treated using antiviral drugs.

9. Cholera Pandemic 1-6 (1817-1923)

Filippo Pacini first discovered V.Cholerae in 1854. Cholera is caused by Aa bacterium called vibrio cholerae. It is an infectious disease. It can cause severe diarrhoea that leads to dehydration and even death. The only treatment of cholera is rehydration. Intake of electrolytes and ORS solution can save a person from cholera. It spreads by eating or drinking contaminated food products.

 The first cholera outbreak took place in Calcutta, British India. And you will be amazed to know that there had been a total of 7 cholera pandemics in the last 200 years! The worst cholera outbreak until now is that of Yemen. Dated from October 2016 to the present (2020), it killed 58% of children of the country. Cholera is among the top 10 deadliest diseases in the world. 

10. Italian Pandemic (1629-1631)

It was a series of outbreaks of the bubonic plague. Also referred to as the great plague of Milan, the plague took away thousands of lives. It wiped away the population of Italy by 25%. The plague started in 1629 and lasted for 2 years. It was carried by Venetian to the country of Italy. It was caused by bacterium yersinia pestis and was spread by rats and fleas.

11. Russian Flu (1889-1890)

Starting its way from Siberia and Kazakhstan, the Russian flu spread across the entirety of Europe. It was the last pandemic of the 19th century. The Russian flu was caused by H2N2 viruses of avian origin. It was also known as Asiatic flu. The outbreak is believed to have probably begun in the schools and army camps. The disease associated with the Russian flu is influenza. 

12. COVID-19 (2019-Present)

The current prevalent virus that’s still spreading like wildfire, Even though the fatality rate of the virus is pretty low, the spread of the infection is pretty terrifying. All of the world’s scientists are focused on finding a cure for the deadly coronavirus disease. The current ruckus created by the global pandemic has introduced many scientific terms to the common public. Such as

What is Patient Zero? or more like who is Patient Zero?

For any disease and its outbreak, Patient Zero is defined as the first person to be infected by the disease

What is Isolation?

Isolation in terms of disease is when people are separated from other people to protect themselves from getting infected.

What is Quarantine?

Quarantine means a state, period, or place of isolation in which people that have arrived from elsewhere or been exposed to the infectious or contagious disease are placed to protect the other people from being infected.

Q&A on Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Source: WHO/Q&A on Corona

Major pandemics timeline:

NameTime PeriodType/Pre-human HostDeath Toll
Antonine Plague165-180Believed to be either smallpox or measles5M
Japanese smallpox epidemic735-737Variola major virus1M
Plague of Justinian541-542Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas30-50M
Black Death1347-1351Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas200M
New World Smallpox Outbreak1520 – onwardsVariola major virus56M
Great Plague of London1665Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas100K
Italian plague1629-1631Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas1M
Cholera Pandemics 1-61817-1923V. cholerae bacteria1M+
Third Plague1885Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas12M (China and India)
Yellow FeverLate 1800sVirus / Mosquitoes100K-150K (U.S)
Russian Flu1889-1890Believed to be H2N2 (avian origin)1M
Spanish Flu1918-1919H1N1 virus / Pigs40-50M
Asian Flu1957-1958H2N2 virus1.1M
Hong Kong Flu1968-1970H3N2 virus1M
HIV/AIDS1981-presentVirus / Chimpanzees25-35M
Swine Flu2009-2010H1N1 virus / Pigs200K
SARS2002-2003Coronavirus / Bats, Civets770
Ebola2014-2016Ebolavirus / Wild animals11,000
MERS2015-PresentCoronavirus / Bats, camels850
COVID-192019-PresentCoronavirus – Unknown
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