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10 of the Worst Epidemics Throughout History

Many apocalyptic events have tested humanity, but the worst of them all came from diseases we could not treat. The thought of a single disease outbreak wiping out the entire human population is scary but hard to ignore because of what has happened in the past. Some of these outbreaks forced people to run from their loved ones and even kill some of them to stay alive. With little research and inadequate health facilities, controlling the outbreaks was almost impossible. Some of these epidemics wiped out cities, nations and even nearly wiped out a whole continent. Most of these diseases have since been put under control by medical discoveries over the years but not without causing much pain and suffering.

The Black Death

The Black Death

The first record of the black death in Europe traces back to 12 ships that docked at the port of Sicily in October 1347. Most sailors on board were dead, the living ones were weak and covered in mysterious boils. The ships became what the historians called the fleet of death as people started dying a few days later despite the Sicilian authorities having forced the vessel to leave. The disease had already ravaged Syria, India, China, and Egypt since the early 14th century but Europe was totally unprepared for it. It spread through fleas that came from black rats carrying the deadly Yersinia pestis bacteria. This is still the worst catastrophe in history known to have wiped out up to 50 million people in Europe. It changed cities both economically and socially as people spent most of their time burying the dead.

The plague terrorized many medieval cities until the 17th century. However, the 14th-century outbreak was totally alarming. Historians spoke of healthy people that went to bed and were found dead the following day. There was no known cure for the infamous disease that resulted in mysterious boils, high fever, vomiting, diarrhea and finally an agonizing death. The people were forced to flee their families, especially in poor communities leaving church volunteers and the government to attend to them and bury them. People were dying at an alarming rate especially in port cities from Africa to Scandinavia. There was nearly no activity in Europe at the time as the labor force was almost wiped out. Years of research have, however, proven that the disease can be treated with antibiotics and of course rats can be killed.[1]

The Justinian Plague

The Justinian Plague

This was the first recorded occurrence of the plague caused by a different strain of the Yersinia bacteria. It affected Africa, Europe, and Asia killing up to 50 million people believed to be nearly one-quarter of the world population at the time. It struck during the reign of Emperor Justinian from 527 to 565 CE. The emperor was also infected, but he finally recovered from the disease, but most of the people in Constantinople did not. The epidemic peaked to 5000 deaths per day in the capital alone wiping out most of the active population.

It came from Egypt through grain ships and spread it to Constantinople and finally the rest of the Roman empire. The quick spread through the empire is linked to the shortage of grain during these years which led to high dependence on grain imported from North Africa. As more grain ships docked, more infected rats were brought to Europe and spread through the city in carts. The disease continued to haunt almost every generation for the next 225 years until its mysterious disappearance in 750CE.[2][3]

The Spanish Flu Outbreak

Worst Epidemics Throughout History - The Spanish Flu Outbreak

It is hard to imagine that flu, hardly feared as a dangerous killer today, nearly wiped out humanity in the 20th century. In 1918, people across America, Asia, and Europe started showing symptoms of the flu, and most of them died with hours or days. The disease spread to the rest of the world in months infecting over 500 million people. More than 645,000 Americans were killed in this outbreak. It is believed to have killed over 30 million people across the world. This disease actually killed more American soldiers in the first world war than the battle itself. The navy was the worst affected as soldiers traveled in closed spaces in the ships.

The name “Spanish flu” resulted from the 8 million deaths in Spain from the disease where even the king himself was infected. There was no vaccine at the time, and most doctors mistook this for a bacterial infection. Tests over the years, however, confirmed that it was a strain of the Influenza virus allowing the creation of a vaccine in 1940 which reduced the spread of the flu in World War 11.[4]

The Third Cholera Pandemic

There is no perfect record of cholera deaths, but since its first major outbreak in the early 19th century, cholera has killed more people than any other waterborne disease. Cholera kills nearly 143,000 people every year according to WHO but the numbers were catastrophic in the 19th century. There are seven major cholera outbreaks recorded in history with the first one tracing back to the Ganges delta, India in 1817. Coincidently, the third pandemic, which was the deadliest, also originated in India in the mid-19th century killing at least 1 million people.

The numbers were probably way higher because medical records were not kept efficiently at the time. The disease spread through Asia into Europe, North America, and Africa because of the interconnecting world. The poor sanitation in the cities made the effects worse killing 10,000 people in London alone in 1854. Twenty-three thousand people died in Great Britain. Jon Snow, a British epidemiologist, discovered contaminated water as the cause of the disease allowing the world to combat its spread in the subsequent years.[5][6]

The Third Plague Pandemic

The plague never stopped with the black death; it came back several times until the 17th century. It then disappeared but then came back again in China the 1850s killing over 12 million people. Despite originating in Yunnan, China, the worst-hit country was India, then a British colony, where over 10 million people were killed. This is the plague’s most recent appearance, now called the third plague. The mining site where it started is believed to have been harboring the disease-carrying yellow breast rats although the governments were not prepared for any such outbreak at the time. In fact, no one even expected this deadly disease ever to come back. Yunnan had a population of over 7 million at the time because of the mineral deposits in the area. The miners spread the fleas through Hong Kong from where it found its way to Bombay, now Mumbai, causing India’s worst epidemic that century. The disease was later contained through quarantines and Waldemar Haffkine’s plague vaccine.[7]

6. The Cocoliztli Epidemics

The Cocoliztli Epidemics

The Aztec kingdom was an established empire in what is modern-day Mexico long before the Spanish reached the Americas. When the Europeans came, they brought Influenza, measles, smallpox, and mumps that wiped out most of the natives reducing the once 30 million strong Aztecs to just 2 million. The Aztecs had their own diseases and problems, but when the Europeans came, they brought them new pathogens that their bodies had never experienced and hence had no immunity against.

The people had no name nor treatment for these new killers, so they just named them cocoliztli, the native name for pestilence. The first wave of the cocoliztli epidemic came in 1545 mostly believed to have been caused by smallpox. It killed up to 8 million people, most of whom lived inland and had never met the Europeans. The second wave of measles which came with most of the wars wiped out the rest of the people.[8]

The Antonine Plague

The Antonine Plague

The Antonine plague wiped out nearly 30% of the Roman empire population. It spanned from modern-day Greece, Spain, and Italy but no one really knows what caused the disease. Some scholars claim it was measles while some sources associate it with smallpox. This plague was not as devastating as the Justinian plague, but it is highly linked to the death of the 2 Roman emperors. Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius were co-regents when the disease struck, Verus died in AD 169 while Aurelius followed just over a decade later. It is believed to have been brought by Verus’ troops while returning from the war in Asia Minor. As the soldiers settled through the cities, the disease spread leaving bodies in the streets at an alarming rate.

The best-known records are from the historian Gallen who gave descriptions of fever, boils both dry and wet and finally death within nine days of contracting the disease. The plague forced Marcus Aurelius to postpone his advances on the Germanic tribes in AD 167. It is actually believed that this plague reduced the imperial forces so much that the emperors were forced to recruit peasants to strengthen their forces. Whatever caused the disease, hope it never comes back![9][10]

The WWI Typhus Outbreak

The flu was not the only killer disease in WW1, as it turned out, Typhus had even more devastating effect on the eastern front. Unlike plague which spreads through black rat fleas, typhus can be transmitted from one person to another through lice. The outbreak of typhus during the war was no mystery; it had happened before even preventing Napoleon’s advance on Russia. The spread on the eastern front started in 1915 with the Austrian prisoners of war who were held in camps in Belgrade under poor sanitation and low medical supply.

As half of the prisoners succumbed to the disease, the doctors and soldiers caught it too turning Serbia into a death zone that scared both the Russians and the Germans. The disease however spread into Russia by 1917 infecting millions of people which weakened the army. The Germans, in turn, moved westwards because of the weakened Russian forces which actually saved them because the disease would have spread to the western front as well.[11]

The Asian Flu Pandemics

Asian Flu epidemic

These were the second and third wave of Influenza which was less severe than the Spanish flu. These strains of Influenza had undergone a mutation and become more resistant. The third wave occurred in 1968 also originating in China. The two waves jointly resulted in 3 to 6 million deaths globally. Its first occurrence was reported in China in 1957. It had been over one decade since licensing of the first influenza vaccine, but the new strains were resistant and more aggressive than the first one.

The spread was quickly leading over 100,000 deaths by the end of that year. It spread into the US causing nearly 70,000 deaths in 1959. Unlike the Spanish flu which attacked people across all age brackets, the Asian flu virus mostly struck children, old people, and pregnant women. The doctors were, however, able to contain both outbreaks just like the first one.[12][13]

HIV/AIDs Pandemic

HIV/AIDs Pandemic

This is probably the worst pathogen that has ever attacked humanity. Besides being hard to tame, HIV was hard to detect making its spread more rapidly in the early days through the ignorant victims. The exact origin of HIV has not been identified, but scientists believe it came from chimpanzees in West Africa. When it was first reported in the 60s, it was thought to affect only gay men, a theory that was disapproved a few years later. The disease caused a lot of panic in the late 19th century as people in some places were even afraid of greeting each other in fear of the disease.

Since its first diagnosis, HIV has infected over 70 million people, half of whom were confirmed dead by the end of 2018. With no cure and rapid degradation of the immune system, this disease has proved deadlier than the plague killing over 40million people over the years. The bulk of the deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa where 41% of the adult population is believed to be living with the disease. However, modern medical advances have proven helpful in reducing the spread of the virus and elongating the life of the victims.[14][15]

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