History of Pandemics

524 views | Victor Gai | March 16, 2020

There have been a number of significant epidemics and pandemics recorded in human history, generally zoonoses that came about with the domestication of animals, such as influenza and tuberculosis. There have been a number of particularly significant epidemics that deserve mention above the “mere” destruction of cities:

Plague of Athens, from 430 to 426 BC. During the Peloponnesian War, typhoid fever killed a quarter of the Athenian troops, and a quarter of the population over four years. This disease fatally weakened the dominance of Athens, but the sheer virulence of the disease prevented its wider spread; i.e. it killed off its hosts at a rate faster than they could spread it. The exact cause of the plague was unknown for many years. In January 2006, researchers from the University of Athens analyzed teeth recovered from a mass grave underneath the city, and confirmed the presence of bacteria responsible for typhoid.

Contemporary engraving of Marseille during the Great Plague of Marseille in 1720–1721. Antonine Plague, from 165 to 180 AD. Possibly smallpox brought to the Italian peninsula by soldiers returning from the Near East; it killed a quarter of those infected, and up to five million in all. At the height of a second outbreak, the Plague of Cyprian (251–266), which may have been the same disease, 5,000 people a day were said to be dying in Rome.

Plague of Justinian, from 541 to 750, was the first recorded outbreak of the bubonic plague. It started in Egypt, and reached Constantinople the following spring, killing (according to the Byzantine chronicler Procopius) 10,000 a day at its height, and perhaps 40% of the city’s inhabitants. The plague went on to eliminate a quarter to a half of the human population that it struck throughout the known world. It caused Europe’s population to drop by around 50% between 550 AD and 700 AD.

Black Death, from 1331 to 1353. The total number of deaths worldwide is estimated at 75 million people. Eight hundred years after the last outbreak, the plague returned to Europe. Starting in Asia, the disease reached Mediterranean and western Europe in 1348 (possibly from Italian merchants fleeing fighting in Crimea), and killed an estimated 20 to 30 million Europeans in six years; a third of the total population, and up to a half in the worst-affected urban areas. It was the first of a cycle of European plague epidemics that continued until the 18th century. There were more than 100 plague epidemics in Europe in this period. The disease recurred in England every two to five years from 1361 to 1480. By the 1370s, England’s population was reduced by 50%. The Great Plague of London of 1665–66 was the last major outbreak of the plague in England. The disease killed approximately 100,000 people, 20% of London’s population.

The third plague pandemic started in China in 1855, and spread to India, where 10 million people died. During this pandemic, the United States saw its first outbreak: the San Francisco plague of 1900–1904. Today, isolated cases of plague are still found in the western United States.

Spanish flu, from 1918 to 1920. It infected 500 million people around the world, including people on remote Pacific islands and in the Arctic, and resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million people. Most influenza outbreaks disproportionately kill the very young and the very old, with higher survival rate for those in between, but the Spanish flu had an unusually high mortality rate for young adults. Spanish flu killed more people than World War I did and it killed more people in 25 weeks than AIDS did in its first 25 years. Mass troop movements and close quarters during World War I caused it to spread and mutate faster; the susceptibility of soldiers to Spanish flu might have been increased due to stress, mal-nourishment and chemical attacks. Improved transportation systems made it easier for soldiers, sailors, and civilian travelers to spread the disease.

Aztecs dying of smallpox, Florentine Codex (compiled 1540–1585). Encounters between European explorers and populations in the rest of the world often introduced local epidemics of extraordinary virulence. Disease killed part of the native population of the Canary Islands in the 16th century (Guanches). Half the native population of Hispaniola in 1518 was killed by smallpox. Smallpox also ravaged Mexico in the 1520s, killing 150,000 in Tenochtitlán alone, including the emperor, and Peru in the 1530s, aiding the European conquerors. Measles killed a further two million Mexican natives in the 17th century. In 1618–1619, smallpox wiped out 90% of the Massachusetts Bay Native Americans. During the 1770s, smallpox killed at least 30% of the Pacific Northwest Native Americans. Smallpox epidemics in 1780–1782 and 1837–1838 brought devastation and drastic depopulation among the Plains Indians. Some believe that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza. Over the centuries, the Europeans had developed high degrees of immunity to these diseases, while the indigenous peoples had no such immunity.

Smallpox devastated the native population of Australia, killing around 50% of Indigenous Australians in the early years of British colonization. It also killed many New Zealand Māori. As late as 1848–49, as many as 40,000 out of 150,000 Hawaiians are estimated to have died of measles, whooping cough and influenza. Introduced diseases, notably smallpox, nearly wiped out the native population of Easter Island. Measles killed over 40,000 Fijians, approximately one-third of the population, in 1875, and in the early 21st century devastated the Andamanese population. The Ainu population decreased drastically in the 19th century, due in large part to infectious diseases brought by Japanese settlers pouring into Hokkaido.

Researchers concluded that syphilis was carried from the New World to Europe after Columbus’ voyages. The findings suggested Europeans could have carried the non-venereal tropical bacteria home, where the organisms may have mutated into a more deadly form in the different conditions of Europe. The disease was more frequently fatal than it is today. Syphilis was a major killer in Europe during the Renaissance. Between 1602 and 1796, the Dutch East India Company sent almost a million Europeans to work in Asia. Ultimately, only less than one-third made their way back to Europe. The majority died of diseases. Disease killed more British soldiers in India and South Africa than war.

As early as 1803, the Spanish Crown organized a mission (the Balmis expedition) to transport the smallpox vaccine to the Spanish colonies, and establish mass vaccination programs there. By 1832, the federal government of the United States established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans. From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, the elimination or control of disease in tropical countries became a driving force for all colonial powers. The sleeping sickness epidemic in Africa was arrested due to mobile teams systematically screening millions of people at risk. In the 20th century, the world saw the biggest increase in its population in human history due to lessening of the mortality rate in many countries due to medical advances. The world population has grown from 1.6 billion in 1900 to an estimated 7.8 billion today.

Cholera outbreaks and pandemics. Since it became widespread in the 19th century, cholera has killed tens of millions of people.

1817–1824 cholera pandemic. Previously restricted to the Indian subcontinent, the pandemic began in Bengal, and then spread across India by 1820. 10,000 British troops and countless Indians died during this pandemic. It extended as far as China, Indonesia (where more than 100,000 people succumbed on the island of Java alone) and the Caspian Sea before receding. Deaths in the Indian subcontinent between 1817 and 1860 are estimated to have exceeded 15 million persons. Another 23 million died between 1865 and 1917. Russian deaths during a similar period exceeded 2 million.

1826–1837 cholera pandemic. Reached Russia, Hungary (about 100,000 deaths) and Germany in 1831, London in 1832 (more than 55,000 persons died in the United Kingdom), France, Canada (Ontario), and United States (New York City) in the same year, and the Pacific coast of North America by 1834. It is believed that over 150,000 Americans died of cholera between 1832 and 1849.

1846–1860 cholera pandemic. Deeply affected Russia, with over a million deaths. A two-year outbreak began in England and Wales in 1848 and claimed 52,000 lives. Throughout Spain, cholera caused more than 236,000 deaths in 1854–55. It claimed 200,000 lives in Mexico.

1863–75 cholera pandemic. Spread mostly in Europe and Africa. At least 30,000 of the 90,000 Mecca pilgrims fell victim to the disease. Cholera claimed 90,000 lives in Russia in 1866. In 1866, there was an outbreak in North America. It killed some 50,000 Americans.

1881–96 cholera pandemic. The 1883–1887 epidemic cost 250,000 lives in Europe and at least 50,000 in the Americas. Cholera claimed 267,890 lives in Russia (1892); 120,000 in Spain; 90,000 in Japan and 60,000 in Persia. In 1892, cholera contaminated the water supply of Hamburg, and caused 8,606 deaths.

1899–1923 cholera pandemic. Had little effect in Europe because of advances in public health, but Russia was badly affected again (more than 500,000 people dying of cholera during the first quarter of the 20th century). The sixth pandemic killed more than 800,000 in India. The 1902–1904 cholera epidemic claimed over 200,000 lives in the Philippines.

1961–75 cholera pandemic. Began in Indonesia, called El Tor after the new biotype responsible for the pandemic, and reached Bangladesh in 1963, India in 1964, and the Soviet Union in 1966. Since then the pandemic has reached Africa, South America, and Central America.

The Greek physician Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine”, first described influenza in 412 BC. The first influenza pandemic was recorded in 1580, and since then, influenza pandemics occurred every 10 to 30 years.

Culled from Wikipedia.

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