Some of the worst pandemics in history have taken millions of lives. What lessons have we learned from these horrible events?

Understanding the history of the worst pandemics requires the ability to differentiate between the epidemic and pandemic in the definition. First of all, the epidemic is an outbreak of the disease on a large scale. The pandemic is much the same in that definition, but it tends to travel globally, infecting people in multiple countries.

While both the epidemic and pandemic can take millions of lives, the pandemic affects a greater geographical location. When crossing borders in this manner, sicknesses and disease can cause more confusion about how to react.

Pandemics and Politics

When it comes to pandemics, different countries tend to react in slightly different manners. For instance, while one country may immediately quarantine its citizens, another one may act in a more lax manner. Unfortunately, these various reactions also cause more deaths. Politicians, after all, in various countries, tend to see things much differently at the beginning of the pandemic.

It’s usually not until the pandemic has taken many lives that leaders understand the serious issues at hand. I will say that in some cases, we get leaders who “over-react”, and in doing so, actually make intelligent decisions. We see various outcomes in some of these outbreaks in disease.

Some of the worst pandemics in history:

1. The Antonine Plague (165 AD)

Over 5 million people and the whole Roman army perished because of the Antonine Plague. This disease, although thought to be either measles or smallpox, was honestly of unknown origin.

The only thing we do know is that Roman soldiers brought the illness back from Mesopotamia and infected a huge population of Egypt, Greece, and Italy. The plague was also known as the Galen Plague and one of the very first pandemics recorded in history.

2. The Bubonic Plague

This insidious plague happened more than once in history – first appearing between 541 and 542 AD and then again between 1346 and 1353.

  • Plague of Justinian (541-542}

The first occurrence of the Bubonic plague took the lives of 25 million people in only one year. The plague ravished the Byzantine Empire and Port cities along the Mediterranean. It’s thought that this first incident of the plague killed almost half of Europe in one year. For a better scope of things, understand that this was around 5,000 per day.

  • The Black Death (Plague of London – 1346-1353}
bubonic plague doctors
Physician attire for protection from the Bubonic plague or Black death.

The second onset of the Bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death and the Plague of London, killed even more individuals in European countries. It is thought that fleas carrying the virus traveled on rats aboard ships going from Asia to Europe. During the life of the plague, seven years, there were between 75 and 200 million deaths.

3. The Cholera Pandemic (1852-1860)

cholera epidemic 1832
Cholera epidemic in France, 1832

There are 6 separate episodes of cholera, but the third one was the worst. This pandemic was found to originate from the water systems. The illness started in India and spread through Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America. Before Cholera was finished with its onslaught, it took the lives of at least 1 million people.

4. Flu pandemics (1889-present)

There were 5 different flu pandemics in history. Each attacked different types of victims. The flu’s first appearance was in the year of 1889 and the epidemic continues today.

  • Flu pandemic (1889-18901)

The flu of this time was caused by Influenza A type of virus H3N8. This virus was reported in 3 different areas: Asia, Canada, and Greenland. Because of rapid population growth, the virus spread quickly across the globe. By the end of the disease’s reign, it has taken around 1 million victims.

  • Flu pandemic (Spanish flu) (1918-1920)
Spanish flu pandemic
Camp Funston, at Fort Riley, Kansas, during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic

The second influenza pandemic was a bit different from the first and thought to come from swine. While the first outbreak claimed the majority of lives of the young, elderly, or those with underlying conditions, the second attack targeted more healthy people with no previous health condition, leaving the young and elderly with fewer casualties.

The mortality rate of this pandemic was 20%, claiming the lives of between 20-50 million individuals.

  • Asian flu pandemic (1956-1958)

Originating in Asia from the H2N2 virus, the Asian flu traveled through parts of China, including Hong Kong, and then into the United States. The virus claimed the lives of around 2 million people.

  • Flu pandemic (Hong Kong flu) (1968)

Another influenza virus, originating in Hong Kong, tore across the globe killing 1 million people. This virus was a mutated form of the H2N2 activated by the H3N2 virus. It only took three months for the virus to spread across the globe affecting, Hong Kong, India, Australia, Europe, the United States and the Philipines.

Although the virus only claimed 1 million deaths globally, it took the most lives of Hong Kong citizens – that would be around 15% of their population.

  • The most recent flu pandemic (2009)

The most recent report of the flu killing vast numbers of people was between 2008 and 2010, with a high concentration in 2009. This strain of flu, the H1N1 virus, claimed more children and middle-aged adults, while the elderly were immune. This is probably due to the fact that past flu pandemics braced the immune system of those who survived previous sicknesses. This flu claimed over 500,000 people in the world, originating in the United States.

5. HIV/Aids (1976-present)

Over 36 million deaths were caused by Aids between 1976 and the present, with peak mortality rates between 2005-2012. The virus started in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and quickly spread over the entire globe. While at first devastating, those with HIV now can go on to live full lives with the help of the proper medications.

6. Corona (Covid19) (2019-)

We are now facing another pandemic that has presently left our world within panic. In just the first three months of this viral breakout, there are over 22,000 reported deaths. Unfortunately, there are shortages in tests, medical supplies and equipment, so the number of mortalities could be higher.

There are currently over 400,000 people diagnosed with the virus, which means there are probably that many more yet to be diagnosed… and growing.

What can we learn now from past pandemics?

Looking at the mortality rate of pandemics of the past, we can learn how to better take care of ourselves today. Presently, we are fighting another pandemic now, and I’m sad to say, many people aren’t taking this virus seriously.

When looking at the end numbers, and comparing them with the active numbers, we assume this virus isn’t half the threat as the ones before it. And that’s just the point. This one has just started, while the others have tapered off, ended or been assigned a vaccine to treat them.

The worst pandemics in history should be teaching us to stay inside and embrace social distancing, even full quarantine for places such as Italy and the United States, where the virus has hit hard. Let’s be smart and quarantine ourselves, stay clean and healthy, and also teach others to do the same.

In this day and age, with the technology at our fingertips, we can spread positive motivation instead of disease, and teach others right from the safety of our homes. Using our intelligence to beat this thing is much better than treating it as a conspiracy.

Please take this one seriously, so history doesn’t repeat itself. Thank you.

  • Featured image: Women wearing surgical masks during the influenza epidemic, 1919 (via WikiCommons)
Sherrie Hurd, A.A.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Euclid Phoenix

    It’s sad how many people are not taking this seriously. I have been called a fear monger because I don’t think it will be a good idea to pack churches on Easter. People say that it isn’t as bad as the flu, but we aren’t sure exactly how bad this can get. I agree that we all need to take proper precautions.

    1. Sherrie Hurd, A.A.

      It is sad. I am in the U.S. and the people here have really outdone themselves, in a bad way. It’s obvious that a huge number of people are ignoring the instructions we’ve all been given during this time. Our numbers have surpassed every other country on the globe. I try not to be, but sometimes, I am terrified by this. Wherever you are, I plead with you to be safe.

      Thank you for reading and please share for awareness.

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