History of Pandemics
The black plague, the Spanish flu, the Ebola virus … have caused millions of deaths throughout human history. Some of the history of pandemics and epidemics, such as cholera, still takes its toll to this day. Here are the stories of the deadliest epidemics in history. Among the greatest disasters to strike mankind, the great epidemics of infectious diseases remain a terrifying lethal force. Whether it is the cholera epidemic, the Black Death, or the Spanish flu, these disasters have more than once rocked the entire continent. Here is the history of the world’s plague, the largest and most devastating epidemic and pandemic in history…
The plague of Athens (-430 to -426 BC)
The first documented pandemic in history, the plague of Athens is in fact probably due to thyphoid fever. Described by the historian Thucydides, himself affected by the disease, the disease manifests itself in intense fevers, diarrhea, rashes and convulsions. Coming from Ethiopia, it then strikes Egypt and Libya, then arrives in Athens at the time of the siege of the city of Sparta, during the Peloponnesian War. It is estimated that a third of the city, or 200,000 inhabitants, will perish during this epidemic which will mark the beginning of the decline of Athens.
The plague Antonine / smallpox (165-166)
The Antonine plague, or galenic plague, struck the Roman Empire at the end of the Antonine dynasty.
Here again, this pandemic is not due to the plague but to smallpox. It takes its name from the Antonine dynasty, from which the Emperor Marcus Aurelius came, who then reigned over the Roman Empire. The pandemic began at the end of the year 165 in Mesopotamia, during the war against the Parthians and reached Rome in less than a year. It is estimated that it caused 10 million deaths between 166 and 189, considerably weakening the Roman population. Smallpox, caused by a virus and characterized by reddish scabs, diarrhea and vomiting, was declared eradicated in 1980.
11th Century: Leprosy
Though it had been around for ages, leprosy grew into a pandemic in Europe in the Middle Ages, resulting in the building of numerous leprosy-focused hospitals to accommodate the vast number of victims.
A slow-developing bacterial disease that causes sores and deformities, leprosy was believed to be a punishment from God that ran in families. This belief led to moral judgments and ostracization of victims. Now known as Hansen’s disease, it still afflicts tens of thousands of people a year and can be fatal if not treated with antibiotics.
The Black Death (1347-1352)
After having raged in China, the black plague pandemic arrived in 1346 in Central Asia, among Mongolian troops besieging the port of Caffa, on the Black Sea, held by Genoese merchants. The disease, manifested by horrible buboes, then spread to North Africa then to Italy and France, where it arrived through the port of Marseille via Genoese ships. It is estimated that this epidemic, also known as “the great plague”, killed between 25 and 40 million people in Europe, or between a third and half of its population at the time.
Cocoliztli Plague (1545-1548)
The infection that caused the cocoliztli epidemic is a form of the dengue virus that kills 15 million inhabitants of Mexico and Central America. Among a population already weakened by extreme drought, this disease is proving to be very dangerous. “Cocoliztli” is the Aztec word for “pest”.
A recent study examining DNA from skeletons of victims found that they were infected with a subspecies of Salmonella known as S. paratyphi C, which causes enteric fever, a category of fever that includes typhus. Enteric fever can cause high fever, dehydration and gastrointestinal problems and is still a major health threat today.
From 1648: yellow fever, 30,000 deaths per year on average
Yellow fever, also known as a repellent strand of vomito negro (“black vomit”), appears in the tropical regions of the Americas where a large epidemic affects Yucatan in Mexico, in 1648, reported the daily Bordeaux Sud-Ouest il some two years ago. This acute viral hemorrhagic disease is transmitted by infected mosquitoes. Several waves roamed the world until the beginning of the 19th century. South America, especially Venezuela and sub-Saharan Africa, are still victims, according to the WHO.
The great plague in London (1664-1665)
Undoubtedly brought by boat from Holland, this bubonic plague killed nearly 100,000 people, or 20% of the city’s population during the winter of 1664-1665. Ironically, it was another disaster, the Great Fire of London of September 1666, which eradicated disease, devastating the most unsanitary areas. Following this epidemic, measures were also put in place to improve sanitary conditions of the city.
Great Plague of Marseille, France: 1720-1723
Present day view of Saint Jean Castle and Cathedral de la Major and the Vieux port in Marseille, France. Up to 30% of the population of Marseille died as a result of a three-year plague epidemic in the 1720s.
Historical records say that the Great Plague of Marseille started when a ship called Grand-Saint-Antoine docked in Marseille, France, carrying a cargo of goods from the eastern Mediterranean. Although the ship was quarantined, plague still got into the city, likely through fleas on plague-infected rodents.
Plague spread quickly, and over the next three years, as many as 100,000 people may have died in Marseille and surrounding areas. It’s estimated that up to 30% of the population of Marseille may have perished.
Russian Flu (1889-1890)
The first significant flu pandemic started in Siberia and Kazakhstan, traveled to Moscow, and made its way into Finland and then Poland, where it moved into the rest of Europe. By the following year, it had crossed the ocean into North America and Africa. By the end of 1890, 360,000 had died.
Hong Kong flu or or H3N2 (1968 to 1970)
Hong Kong flu is caused by a reassortant H3N2 strain of the H2N2 influenza A virus. Active from 1968 to 1970, this flu is believed to have killed around one million people worldwide. The flu spread to Asia and the United States and then hit the whole of Europe towards the end of 1969. The H2N2 influenza vaccination then available could attenuate about 50% of confirmed cases of H3N2. In addition to roads and sea routes, air routes will be added, which will contribute to the spread of the virus globally. Following this third pandemic of the 20th century, pandemic surveillance systems were then strengthened. The various virus observation and medical research laboratories are advancing by predicting possible returns of influenza pandemics approximately every 10 years.
The Spanish flu or Influenza (1918-1919)
Caused by a particularly virulent type A H1N1 virus, the Spanish flu is actually of Asian origin. It then arrived in the United States, then crossed the Atlantic by the soldiers who had come to help France. If it is qualified as the Spanish flu, it is because the country, not subject to censorship and war, is reporting the first alarming news. At the time of the outbreak, World War I was coming to an end and public health authorities had no or few official protocols in place for dealing with viral pandemics, which contributed to its large impact. The Spanish flu has killed 20 to 30 million people in Europe and up to 50 million globally, sparing virtually no region of the globe. It is estimated that a third of the world’s pollution has been infected.
Endemic for several centuries in the Ganges delta in India, cholera spread to Russia in 1930, then to Poland and Berlin. He landed in France in March 1832 via the port of Calais, then arrived in Paris. Appearing in sudden diarrhea and vomiting, cholera (the cause of which is not known at the time, the bacteria Vibrio cholerae) causes rapid dehydration, sometimes leading to death within hours. The epidemic will cause nearly 100,000 deaths in less than six months in France, including 20,000 in Paris. It will then reach Quebec via Irish immigrants, where it will also wreak havoc.
Asian flu (1956-1957)
Linked to the influenza H2N2 virus, the 1956 flu is the second most deadly influenza pandemic after that of 1918. It will cause two to three million deaths worldwide, including 100,000 in France, 20 times more than the flu seasonal classic. Starting from China (hence its name), the virus spread to Hong Kong, Singapore and Borneo, then Australia and North America before hitting Europe and Africa. It will mutate a few years later into H3N2 to cause a new pandemic in 1968-1969, nicknamed “Hong Kong flu”. The latter will mark the debut of the first effective influenza vaccines.
Originally from Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo), the AIDS virus came to light in 1981, when the epidemiological agency in Atlanta, United States, alerted on unusual cases of pneumocystosis (a rare pneumonia present in patients immunosuppressed). HIV was not identified until two years later, in 1983, by a team of researchers from the Institut Pasteur led by Luc Montagnier. At the height of the epidemic, in the 2000s, two million people died from the virus each year. 36.9 million patients are now living with HIV, but antiretroviral therapy has significantly reduced mortality.
First identified in 2003 after several months of cases, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is believed to have possibly started with bats, spread to cats and then to humans in China, followed by 26 other countries, infecting 8,096 people, with 774 deaths.
SARS is characterized by respiratory problems, dry cough, fever and head and body aches and is spread through respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes.
Quarantine efforts proved effective and by July, the virus was contained and hasn’t reappeared since. China was criticized for trying to suppress information about the virus at the beginning of the outbreak.
SARS was seen by global health professionals as a wake-up call to improve outbreak responses, and lessons from the pandemic were used to keep diseases like H1N1, Ebola and Zika under control.
H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic: 2009-2010
The 2009 swine flu pandemic was caused by a new strain of H1N1 that originated in Mexico in the spring of 2009 before spreading to the rest of the world. In one year, the virus infected as many as 1.4 billion people across the globe and killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people, according to the CDC.
The 2009 flu pandemic primarily affected children and young adults, and 80% of the deaths were in people younger than 65 years old, the CDC reported. That was unusual, considering that most strains of flu viruses, including those that cause seasonal flu, cause the highest percentage of deaths in people ages 65 and older. But in the case of the swine flu, older people seemed to have already built up enough immunity to the group of viruses that H1N1 belongs to, so weren’t affected as much. A vaccine for the H1N1 virus that caused the swine flu is now included in the annual flu vaccine.
West African Ebola epidemic: 2014-2016
Ebola ravaged West Africa between 2014 and 2016, with 28,600 reported cases and 11,325 deaths. The first case to be reported was in Guinea in December 2013, then the disease quickly spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The bulk of the cases and deaths occurred in those three countries. A smaller number of cases occurred in Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, the United States and Europe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
There is no cure for Ebola, although efforts at finding a vaccine are ongoing. The first known cases of Ebola occurred in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976, and the virus may have originated in bats.
Zika Virus epidemic: 2015-present day
The impact of the recent Zika epidemic in South America and Central America won’t be known for several years. In the meantime, scientists face a race against time to bring the virus under control. The Zika virus is usually spread through mosquitoes of the Aedes genus, although it can also be sexually transmitted in humans.
While Zika is usually not harmful to adults or children, it can attack infants who are still in the womb and cause birth defects. The type of mosquitoes that carry Zika flourish best in warm, humid climates, making South America, Central America and parts of the southern United States prime areas for the virus to flourish.
Covid 19 (2019-present)
The new coronavirus strain was first identified in the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, at the end of December 2019. This virus has caused a cluster of cases of acute respiratory disease, known as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). According to media reports, more than 200 countries and territories have been affected by COVID-19, with major outbreaks occurring in Brazil, Russia, India, Mexico, Peru, South Africa, Western Europe and the United States. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) marked the spread of COVID-19 as a pandemic, marking the first global pandemic since the 2009 swine flu pandemic. As of February 3, 2021, the number of people infected with COVID-19 has reached 104,375,978 worldwide, 76,225,652 of them have recovered. The death toll was 2,262,004.
It is believed that these numbers are underestimated because testing did not start in the early stages of the outbreak and many people who are infected with the virus have no or only mild symptoms and may not have been tested. Likewise, the number of recoveries can also be understated because testing is required before cases are officially recognized as recovered, and deaths are sometimes linked to other conditions. This is especially the case in large urban areas where a large number of patients die while in their private homes. It was later discovered that asymptomatic hypoxia due to the lung disease COVID-19 may be responsible for many such cases. An analysis of the spatial-temporal spread of COVID-19 at an early stage in China and Italy was carried out by Gross et al. A model for assessing the likelihood of worldwide spread and declaring a pandemic was recently developed by Valdez et al.
Photo credit: Pixabay