In many ways, the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis is unique.
It has paralyzed the way the world operates and has drastically changed our living habits and routines. Millions put their wellbeing on the frontlines to help the rest of us avoid sickness, and the worldwide system is on the verge of collapsing.
Humanity won’t be the same afterward. But as destructive as COVID-19 has been for our lifestyle, this pandemic is far from being the only one.
Pandemics, by definition, are diseases that spread across multiple continents and affect a significant number of people. They can happen within a timeframe, or they can be ongoing across decades, but their impact must be worldwide.
Sadly, the number of pandemics humanity has fought against is not small. People like you and me have fought against dangerous viruses and bacteria across millennia—many of them with a death toll far too significant for us to comprehend. Some of these diseases have returned many times, often with a vengeance.
But despite the odds, and despite the adversity, we have won every single one of them. COVID-19 won’t be the exception.
Take a look at seven of the worst pandemics in human history.
7. Asian Flu.
Estimated death toll: 1-4 million.
Time of occurrence: 1957-1958.
The so-called Asian flu was yet another influenza pandemic, derived from the H2N2 subtype of the influenza A virus.
Its name references the origins of the disease in China. Still, it became a widespread pandemic that reached almost every corner of the world. It spread from the Guizhou province to Singapore, Taiwan, and eventually spread to America and Europe.
According to the experts, the virus was a novel strain that merged avian and human influenza. As a result, the population had virtually no immunity to the disease, and it spread fast. Luckily, thanks to the studies of multiple microbiologists—including Maurice Hilleman—a vaccine soon became available. Only this discovery stopped the spread of the pandemic.
6. The Cholera Pandemics.
Estimated death toll: +40 million in total.
Time of occurrence: 1817-1824; 1829-1837; 1846-1860; 1863-1875; 1881-1896; 1899-1923; 1961-1975.
There have been seven cholera pandemics since the disease was first described in 1817, and the casualty numbers put into perspective how deadly this disease can be.
Cholera is a bacteriological disease caused by Vibrio cholerae and affecting the digestive system, particularly the small intestine. Depending on the type of bacterium, cholera can have mild-to-severe symptoms, and it’s often fatal. It’s spread through contaminated water and food, so outbreaks usually take place in areas with precarious hygienic conditions.
The seven cholera pandemics claimed lives across all five continents, with some of the most deadly events taking place in India and Russia.
While some sources claim the seventh cholera pandemic is over, the WHO claims it’s still ongoing. There are multiple outbreaks taking place all across the world, particularly in the conflict-stricken Yemen.
Estimated death toll: 23-44 million.
Time of occurrence: 1981-Ongoing.
We all know about AIDS.
Identified in 1981, but with cases preceding that date, the human immunodeficiency viruses (HIV) progressively affect the infected person’s immune system, causing Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). While AIDS does not kill directly, it inhibits the body’s response to other, potentially deadly diseases.
HIV is transmitted through certain body fluids, particularly blood and genital emissions. As a consequence, it was first observed in the United States within the gay community and heroin users.
According to analyses, HIV developed in West Africa and spread through the continent, jumped to the Americas through Haiti, and eventually reached New York and San Francisco in the 1970s.
Although modern treatments have slowed down the progression of the HIV infection and manage to prevent AIDS, there is no vaccine yet. Even worse, these clear signs of progress haven’t become widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa, where thousands die of the illness every year.
But there’s hope. As of 2020, two patients have been completely cured of the disease.
4. Spanish Flu.
Estimated death toll: 17-100 million.
Time of occurrence: 1918-1920.
The Spanish Flu was an exceptionally deadly influenza pandemic caused by an H1N1 virus. According to studies, it infected a third of the world’s population.
The deadly consequences of the Spanish Flu answer to the hazardous conditions of the world by the time it showed up. Appearing near the end of World War I, the population was malnourished, crowded in barracks or refuges, and governments discouraged reports of the disease to avoid lowering morale. Only Spain, who didn’t take part in the war, released accurate reports of the disease, leading to the apparent belief that it was the epicenter of the infection.
Perhaps the scariest thing about the Spanish Flu was its effectiveness. It had an infection rate of 50%, and it killed within days due to bacterial pneumonia or hemorrhage from mucous membranes. Almost all of the fatalities were otherwise healthy young adults, particularly pregnant women.
3. Plague of Justinian.
Estimated death toll: 25-100 million.
Time of occurrence: 541-750 AD.
The Plague of Justinian is, according to historical records, the first plague pandemic in the world. It took place mainly from 541 to 542 AD, but it returned in subsequent waves until 750.
Plague is thought to have started in China, but it became a pandemic in Egypt. From then it spread to the Byzantine Empire through infested rats aboard ships carrying grain imports. Eventually, it reached the rest of the Mediterranean, across Europe and West Asia.
Named after the ruling emperor of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian I saw half of Europe’s population die thanks to the plague. The catastrophic economic consequences debilitated the empire and made room for Christianity to give hope to people succumbing to illness and despair.
Byzantium would never recover. But sadly, it wouldn’t be humanity’s last encounter with a plague pandemic.
2. The Black Death.
Estimated death toll: 75-200 million.
Time of occurrence: 1347-1351.
Mentioning the word “pandemic” is certain to bring the imagery of Europe in the late Middle Ages—rats, fleas, and doctors wearing eerie black masks, with long pointy beaks.
The Black Death was an outbreak of plague, an infectious disease caused by the bacterium y. pestis and transmitted by fleas that often inhabit the fur of black rats. It has three varieties, and the name of this pandemic answers to the dark buboes on the skin of the infected, a symptom of the bubonic variation.
According to most historians, the Black Death started in 1347 and finished in 1351. It was so devastating that, although it only lasted four years, it killed an estimate of over half of Europe’s entire population at the time.
It decimated the economy and impacted lives in ways never seen before.
Estimated death toll: +500 million (1877–1977)
Time of occurrence: Impossible to determine accurately.
Out of all the infectious agents featured in this list, Variola major might be the deadliest one. One of humanity’s most persistent enemy, there are reports of a smallpox-like disease in ancient books from India dating to 1,500 BCE. Many ancient pandemics, such as the Antonine Plague, are now understood to be outbreaks of smallpox.
While the disease killed hundreds of thousands of people annually in Europe and Asia, its effects were catastrophic for the indigenous population in America once it arrived in the continent. Without natural immunity to smallpox, over 95% of the natives succumbed to the illness.
But don’t get scared just yet. In 1977, smallpox became the first infectious disease to be completely eradicated worldwide. It hasn’t killed again.
However, it left its mark. The current death count for smallpox is over 500 million, but that only accounts for a single century—from 1877 to the disease’s eradication in 1977. It doesn’t account for the millennia beforehand.
Think about that.
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