Ten Deadliest Epidemics and Pandemics in Human History
Written By: Angela DiLella
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Ten Deadliest Epidemics and Pandemics in Human History
Right now, you’re probably holed up in your home because your job is taking precautionary measures against the coronavirus, or you’re preparing to work safely while many have holed up. Although this is probably the biggest pandemic in recent memory, human history has been fraught by outbreaks of disease pretty much since day one. In light of our current global outbreak, we’ve compiled a list of the ten deadliest epidemics and pandemics in human history. Please note that our list is in chronological order. (Sorted earliest to most recent).
1. The Plague of Athens (Unknown)
From 429 to 426 BC, Athens, Greece (then an independent city-state, was devastated by an unknown epidemic. It is estimated that this plague killed 75,000 to 100,000 people in Athens alone, and although it did spread to other parts of the Mediterranean, nowhere else seemed to suffer in quite the same way that Athens did. This plague was a major contribution to Athens’ defeat during the second Peloponnesian war. It caused so much devastation on its own that Athens’s enemies withdrew from the land for fear they would contract the disease themselves.
Although it is still unknown what this plague was, the historian Thucydides contracted it and survived to write about it in The History of the Peloponnesian War. The symptoms he described were fever, inflammation about the eyes, throats so sore they bled and sometimes resulted in a loss of voice, violent coughing, vomiting, convulsions, pustules on the body, extreme thirst, insomnia, and diarrhea. Titus Lucretius added that the victims had bloody or black discharges from their orifices in his own writings.
Historians have suggested typhus, typhoid fever, Ebola, and more as possible culprits. It is also possible the disease itself no longer exists, having effectively snuffed itself out, or having evolved into something new over the years. Because this plague began while Athens was taking in refugees from the Peloponnesian war, it has also been suggested that the plague was really many diseases striking an already weakened populace at the same time. Poor hygiene thanks to crowded conditions and inadequate supplies of food and clean water would have only made things worse.
Although earlier accounts of these outbreaks may have been documented, this plague was significant and as such is considered one of the ten deadliest epidemics and pandemics in human history.
2. The Plague of Justinian (Plague)
The Plague of Justinian lasted only a year (541 to 542 BC) but wiped out an estimated 25 million people in Europe, Egypt, and parts of Asia. Modern studies suggest that the plague originated in Central Asia, with preserved samples of Yersinia pestis DNA most closely matching those found in the Tian Shan mountain range today. It is possible that nomadic tribes, like the Huns, helped spread the disease throughout Asia. Trade ships that unknowingly carried infected fleas, rodents, goods, and people would have done the rest.
As with the Plague of Athens, this plague decimated the affected country. In this case, it was Constantinople that was the hardest hit. Unfortunately for Constantinople, their encroaching enemies, the Goths, did not back off for fear of catching disease. While the emperor, Justinian I, could not ward them off successfully, it did force his Persian enemies to retreat.
It seems that the Plague of Justinian is the first recorded case of Yersina pestis in history, though samples of the plague’s DNA have been found on skeletons from Eurasia dating back as far as 5,000 BC. Yersina pestis is arguably the only “true” plague on this list, as its common name is actually just plague!
3. Black Death (Bubonic/Pneumonic Plague)
Perhaps the most famous plague in human history is that of the Black Death, also known as the Pestilence or Great Plague. It ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1351, killing an estimated 75 million people during its active phase. The culprit, again, was Yersinia pestis, specified as the bubonic plague thanks to the buboes (severe inflammation of the lymph nodes) that would appear in neck, groin, and armpits, on top of the usual fever and vomiting (usually blood). Lodewijk Heyligen wrote that one form of the plague affected the lungs and always led to a quick death, that is, pneumonic plague. There was a chance of recovery from the bubonic plague.
Bad air was blamed for the plague, but today any school child could tell you that it was really spread by infected fleas. If a flea bit a host that already was infected with Yersinia pestis, the plague would get into the flea’s body. There, it would replicate and block its digestive system. The flea would essentially starve because of the blockage. It would feed, not feel full, and regurgitate the blood in an attempt to clear itself out—right onto a new host, infecting them, too. Poor hygienic conditions and a complete lack of scientific understanding didn’t help anybody. Even worse, stray cats were regularly killed in the middle ages because of their suspected ties to witchcraft. So infected fleas could always catch a ride on rats, which were everywhere, unchecked, at that time.
Although the “official” Black Death only lasted four years, the plague would linger in Europe and strike again every few years through to the seventeenth century. During the “second plague” epidemics, the word “quarantine” originated. It comes from the Italian word for forty (quaranta). All ships travelling to Ragusa had to remain isolated for one month during the plague seasons, which was eventually upped to forty days.
4. English Sweating Sickness (Sweating Sickness)
Over the course of almost seventy years (1485-1551), Europe was stricken by a mysterious disease known as the sweating sickness. According to physician John Caius, victims of the disease would first be beset by a feeling of apprehension, then cold shivers, sweat, delirium, headaches, pains in the neck, shoulders, and limbs, ending in an exhaustion so great that they might collapse or just lay down to sleep. Some victims also complained of heart pain and palpitations. Unlike the plagues that have already been discussed on this list, surviving a bout of sweating sickness did not grant any immunity to it.
It is completely unknown what this disease was, though some believe it could have been a strain of hantavirus, which affects the lungs and can be transmitted to humans through rodent waste. Microbiologist Edward McSweegan has also suggested that the sweating sickness could have been outbreaks of anthrax poisoning. Whatever it was, the sweating sickness that had originated in England had completely disappeared by 1551.
5. The Great Pestilence (Cocoliztli)
The great pestilence, or the cocoliztli epidemic, that swept through Mexico from 1545 through 1548 is considered the worst epidemic in Mexico’s history. At least 800,000 Aztec deaths were recorded, but it’s thought that anywhere from 5 to 15 million people could have died during this epidemic altogether. Both native and Spanish populations were hurt by cocoliztli, and doctors of all backgrounds were baffled by the plague. Certainly anything that potentially can kill millions of people is one of the Ten Deadliest Epidemics and Pandemics.
Cocoliztli symptoms were high fever, headaches, vertigo, blackened tongue, darkened urine, dysentery, stomach and chest pain, swollen nodes on the head and neck, confusion, jaundice, and bleeding from the nose, eyes, and mouth. Symptoms came on suddenly, and death usually occurred within a week of showing symptoms. Some historians believe that it was an old world (European) disease carried by the Spanish colonizers, others think it was an extreme form of a viral hemorrhagic fever because there are records of them from before any Europeans reached Mexico. A study of teeth from the time period suggested that a strain of salmonella was one of the instigators. It seems likely that many different diseases and infections were working in conjunction to decimate the population. Terrible droughts and working and living conditions brought on by Spanish colonizers would have weakened local populations and spread the disease around much quicker than under normal circumstances.
A lack of workers following this plague led to mass starvation in the area which affected both the natives and the Spaniards. This led to a destabilization of the local ruling class. Generally, tensions were high all around and everyone was in a weakened state. It isn’t that much of a surprise that a second outbreak of cocoliztli occurred in 1576.
6. The Plague of 1771 (Bubonic Plague)
Central Russia’s last major plague outbreak actually lasted from 1770-1772. The plague is thought to have originated in Moldova, picked up from prisoners of war, and spread through the Ukraine into Russia. It is most likely known as the Plague of 1771 because its death toll in Moscow peaked that year. It is thought that the plague claimed the lives of anywhere from 52,000 to 100,000 while it was active. Extreme means meant to end the plague, such as forced quarantines, forced destruction of property of those infected, and ending social services on top of problems like food shortages and extreme income loss whipped Moscow citizens into a frenzy, and September fifteenth through the seventeenth of 1771 were also marked by mass riots.
The unfortunate thing about this plague epidemic was that precautionary measures like medical quarantine checkpoints were already in place. However, these focused on the possibility of disease being brought into the city and less on disease that was spreading within the city. To her credit, Catherine the Great tried to decrease pollution to help the inhabitants of Moscow. At the time, there was a popular belief that bad smells caused disease, so she also had smelly things leave: so long to the fish markets and factories! Still, bubonic plague, bringing with it the now-familiar symptoms of swollen lymph nodes, fever, and vomiting. Septicemic plague also cropped up, which is when Yersina pestis infects the blood of a victim. Its symptoms resemble bubonic plague, minus the buboes, and it cannot be spread from person to person.
7. First Cholera Pandemic (Cholera)
Cholera had spread through India many times before 1817, but in 1817 cholera made its first jump outside of the country, spreading into China, Japan, Baghdad, Syria, Oman, Indonesia, Zanzibar, Mauritius, Transcaucasia and southern parts of Russia by the time the pandemic ended in 1824. Over 100,000 lives were claimed during the first cholera pandemic. It is thought that Indian pilgrims carried cholera through India itself, which is how it had been spread prior to the first cholera pandemic, and the British navy introduced it to port cities most everywhere else.
Cholera can be a difficult disease to track because some victims may not show any symptoms at all. The symptoms can also range from very mild to very severe, so they can be confused with lesser health problems. Symptoms usually take the form of bouts of diarrhea (which can lead to dehydration), vomiting, and muscle cramps. Poor water quality and ill-prepared food are the leading causes of cholera, and poverty-stricken and developing areas still struggle with the disease. Cholera was named a modern pandemic in 2010, and it still kills around three to five million people per year.
8. Spanish Flu (Influenza)
Generally, the Spanish flu seems to be the most well-known modern pandemic, because whenever a new flu strain begins spreading quickly through populations, the instinct seems to be to compare the new strain to the Spanish flu. From 1918 to 1920, the Spanish flu infected 500 million people around the world and even managed to reach people in isolated regions, like Inuits and other Alaskan natives. How many actually died is up for debate, with estimates ranging anywhere from 50 to 100 million lives lost. So many people died in the United States during 1918 that the country’s average life expectancy had to be dropped by twelve years. Without a doubt, considered one of the Ten Deadliest Epidemics and Pandemics.
The origin of this deadly flu is unknown. The Spanish flu only got its name because many countries, trying to keep morale up during World War I, censored news about the flu. However, Spain wasn’t involved in the war, so there weren’t any restrictions placed on reporters there. This gave rise to the misconception that the disease originated there or that Spain was hit much harder than other parts of the world.
Symptoms were considered unusual for a flu, with mucus membranes hemorrhaging and bleeding from the ears and petechial hemorrhages (spots on the skin caused by broken capillaries). The flu could kill by causing hemorrhages or fluid retention in the victim’s lungs. It could also weaken the immune system and lungs, allowing a victim to survive the flu but be stricken down by bacterial pneumonia shortly after. It is also believed that the flu could trigger an overreaction of the immune system which is known as a cytokine storm. Basically, this is when an immune system’s ability to fight infection is turned against itself. This is more likely to affect those with the strongest immune systems, which may explain why young adults were most affected by the Spanish flu instead of the elderly or very young. It also spread quickly within the trenches and war constructs of World War I, mostly populated by young, able-bodied men. Poor conditions, hygiene, and food availability would, as always, made things much worse. In 2009, Karen Starko also suggested that tainted aspirin contributed to a good portion of the death toll.
9. 2009 Flu Pandemic (Influenza)
In 2009, it seemed possible that humans were headed towards another bout with the Spanish flu. H1N1, the virus behind the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920, mutated and developed a new strain. The new strain was first recognized in Mexico and would end up on nearly every continent in the world, barring Antarctica. There were 700 million to 1.4 billion confirmed cases of H1N1 across the globe, and the death toll estimate ranges from 150,000 to 575,000 fatal cases.
The symptoms of H1N1 were similar to many other types of flus. A contractor could find themselves with fever, dry coughs, headaches, muscle and joint pain, sore throat, chills, fatigue, runny nose, diarrhea, vomiting, and confusion. Young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with underlying medical conditions or otherwise weakened immune systems were most at risk for serious complications.
Interestingly, studies suggested that the seasonal flu vaccination provided higher resistance to H1N1, though a vaccine was made for H1N1 eventually. H1N1 was spread similarly to regular flu between people and originally hopped from animals to people. H1N1 was referred to as swine flu because it was first detected in pigs, but ferrets, turkeys, domesticated cats, a dog, and even a cheetah had also been found carrying the disease. Suvh a spread makes this one of the Ten Deadliest Epidemics and Pandemics.
10. HIV/AIDS Pandemic (HIV/AIDS)
HIV/AIDS is just one of many pandemics still considered active at the time of this writing. Although many associate HIV/AIDS with the 1980s, its origins have been traced back to the 1920s in the city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first known cases of HIV were recorded around this time, and it’s thought that HIV could have been transmitted from another species, just as many types of flus are. Chimpanzees can be afflicted by Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which some believe could have spread to a human or hunter that interacted with the chimps. From there, a human could have passed the mutated strain of SIV to another human via sexual contact or blood. Over time, AIDS develops from HIV.
A Japanese case in 1945 and a case in Tennessee in 1952 are two of the earliest known possible cases recorded outside of the Congo. Both patients were originally diagnosed with a form of pneumocystis pneumonia, but some experts believe the symptoms recorded would have led to an AIDS diagnosis if it was a known disease at that time. The first recorded case of AIDS in the United States was in 1969 and the AIDS epidemic officially began on June 5, 1981. There seemed to be a disproportionate amount of cases reported among gay men, which led to its original name, gay-related immune deficiency (GRID), but health authorities began noticing reports of similar symptoms amongst hemophiliacs, intravenous drug users (like heroin users), and Haitian immigrants, so some researchers referred to it as 4H disease. In 1982, the CDC passed the name Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome—AIDS. Bias against the LGBTQ community and other groups afflicted meant there was very little reporting done at the start of the epidemic and misinformation had an opportunity to spread.
This epidemic is considered ongoing. Better understanding of HIV/AIDS has led to the dissemination of more accurate information and better precautionary measures in many parts of the world, but it still claims the lives of many each year. However, just this month the BBC reported that a second person has been cured of HIV, at least at this moment. Though this is a long way from the eradication of HIV/AIDS, it is a huge step. The fact that HIV/AIDS has been an issue for so long is why we consider this to be one of the Ten Deadliest Epidemics and Pandemics.
Although it can be frustrating to be stuck at home in a quarantine, it’s important to remember why you’re there. With many of the epidemics and pandemics described on our list, quarantines were a big help is lessening the damage to the overall population. Practicing good hygiene faithfully is another important piece of the puzzle. In addition, although there doesn’t seem to be a vaccine for coronavirus yet, keeping yourself healthy and safe will be a big help in fighting off and eradicating the pandemic altogether. Meanwhile, while you are stuck at home, why not check out some of the other articles and reviews that Grave Reviews has to offer?
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