It’s a known fact that pandemics change the course of humanity forever. While thousands die and economies collapse, containing the epidemic outbreak poses a major challenge to governments all over the world. There have been several pandemics in history that led to more deaths than in wars.
Here are 15 of the most disastrous pandemics since prehistoric times that even led to the end of civilizations.
An epidemic in China about 5,000 years ago, wiped out an entire village. The bodies were stuffed inside a house and later burned down. Skeletons of all age groups, right from fully grown adults to infants, were found centuries later in an archaeological excavation.
The village, known as ‘Hamim Mangha’, is one of the best-preserved prehistoric sites in northeast China. Anthropological studies indicate that the epidemic broke out quickly and the authorities didn’t have time for proper burials. The village was abandoned.
The Plague of Justinian arrived in Constantinople in 541 AD. It came from Egypt over the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt, back then, was a recently conquered land that paid tribute to Emperor Justinian in grains. The plague-ridden fleas had hitched a ride on black rats that sneaked into the sacks of grain.
The disease decimated entire Constantinople and soon spread to Europe, northern Africa, Arabia, and Asia. According to historical records, an estimated 30 to 50 million people died from the Justinian plague which was then half of the world’s population.
The Athenian Plague broke out shortly after a war between Athens and Sparta began in 430 BC. It lasted for more than five years. Some historical records claim the death toll to be over 100,000.
Greek historian Thucydides wrote that people with good health were suddenly attacked by inflammation and redness in the eyes and violent heats in the head. It also affected other body parts like the tongue and throat. Many historians believe that the epidemic exacerbated because of overcrowding during the war. The Athenians took refuge behind a series of ‘long walls’ that fortified their city.
The Antonine Plague, which may have been smallpox, killed more than 5 million people in Rome from 165 to 180 AD. It is believed to have come with Roman soldiers when they returned home after a war against the Parthians.
The Antonine Plague is believed to have been the worst in the list of pandemics in history. Many historians believe that the plague contributed to the end of the Pax Romana the Roman era of peace from 27 BC to 180 AD. It was the time when the Roman Empire was at the pinnacle of power.
The Black Death is widely considered as one of the most disastrous in the list of plagues in history. It hit Europe in 1347 and claimed more than 200 million lives in less than four years.
People at that time had no scientific understanding of how to contain the pandemic. Venetian officials sent newly arrived soldiers in the port city of Ragusa to quarantino (forced isolation) for 40 days. It was how the word ‘quarantine’ was coined. The soldiers were allowed to enter the city only after they proved non-infectious.
Soon after the Black Death, London was struck by what is now called the Great Plague. The plague resurfaced every two decades from 1348 to 1665, causing 40 outbreaks in three centuries. Each new outbreak killed at least 20 percent of London’s population. The Great Plague of 1665 was the last. More than 100,000 people were killed in just seven months. Public entertainment was banned and victims were forcibly confined to their homes. A red cross was painted on the house of the affected. The dead were buried in mass graves.
The Great Plague of Marseille lasted from 1720 to 1723. It broke out when a goods ship from the eastern Mediterranean, called Grand-Saint-Antoine, docked in the port city. The plague reached the city before the ship was quarantined through plague-infected rodents. The pandemic spread quickly in Marseille and its neighboring towns. Approximately 30 percent of Marseille’s population perished in the plague.
Few countries have been spared by the highly infectious cholera bacteria. Transmitted through feces-contaminated water that leads to vomiting and severe diarrhea, the London Cholera of 1854 swept across the city. It spawned epidemiological investigations that take place when a disease outbreaks today.
While some scientists suspected that the cholera bacteria was airborne, English physician John Snow believed otherwise. He mapped the outbreak and found that all those affected had retrieved water from a Broad Street pump. He ordered the authorities to turn off the pump-handle and people stopped getting sick.
The viral infection became endemic in sub-Saharan Africa to South America. Spread by female mosquitoes, the disease got its name because it turned the color of the skin to a distinct shade of yellow. The Yellow Fever, one of the worst pandemics in the US, spread across Philadelphia and its adjoining areas killing over 10 percent of the population. Philadelphia was then the US capital.
As the epidemic broke out, the capital was shifted to Washington. None knew what caused the outbreak. Some officials wrongly believed that slaves were immune to the disease. Abolitionists suggested recruiting people of African origin to nurse the sick. It wasn’t until 1900 when researchers in the US Army found out that mosquitoes transmitted the fever.
The Russain Plague broke out in Moscow in 1770. Terror of being quarantined led to violence with riots erupting all over the city. Archbishop Ambrosius, who was urging crowds not to gather for worship, was killed in the riots.
Russian empress Catherine II, desperate to contain the plague, passed a hasty decree ordering all factories to be moved out of Moscow. More than 100,000 people died by the time the plague ended in 1772. Catherine struggled to restore order even after the pandemic ended.
The Spanish flu spread across the world in 1918 and was one of the worst pandemics in history. It had an avian origin. Over 500 million people—one-third of the world’s population were infected with the virus. It caused 50 million deaths worldwide, including 675,000 in the US. Victims of the virus experienced fluid-filled lungs, severe pneumonia, and tissue inflammation.
The virus is believed to have been triggered by soldiers returning home from their World War I duties. Eminent microbiologist Terrence Tumpey, in 2005, found that the Spanish flu was a uniquely deadly product that evolved from the intermingling of animals and people.
Considered as one of the most disastrous pandemics in history, the Asian Flu began in the eastern part of Asia in 1957. The specific influenza virus strain was first detected in Singapore in February 1957. The virus made its way to Hong Kong in April that year and soon reached the US coastal cities in the summer of 1957. According to conservative estimates, more than 1.1 million people died of the Asian Flu all across the world, including 116,000 in the US alone.
The Hong Kong Flu of 1968 originated in China. It was caused by an influenza A virus and was the third pandemic of the 20th century. More than one million people died worldwide with 100,000 in the US alone.
Scientists believe that the Hong Kong Flu’s roots were in the Asian Flu pandemic of 1957. The former broke out via a process called ‘antigenic shift’ which had minor genetic changes to the flu virus genes that led to a change in the surface of the hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins. The antigenic shift is the reason why people are affected by flu more than once.
The 2009 swine flu originated in Mexico in spring that year before spreading to the rest of the world. The virus, in a single year, infected 1.4 billion people across the globe. Over 575,400 people were killed. The virus majorly affected young adults and children. Around 80 percent of those who died were less than 65, which was unusual because flu-induced deaths mostly happened among older people. But the latter seemed to have grown enough immunity to combat the virus.
Novel Coronavirus is the newest in the list of pandemics that has already caused more than 603,000 deaths worldwide. The origins of the virus can be traced back to strains in the 1930s. The recent spate of the virus originated in China and quickly spread all across the globe. A vaccine for the virus is yet to be discovered though tests are in their advanced stages. The outbreak of the virus has affected economies all over the world with trade and commerce coming almost to a standstill.
The list of pandemics in history doesn’t seem to end. While the frequency has reduced over time because of advanced medical and scientific research, the coronavirus outbreak has proved that the worst is always yet to come. Precautionary measures can save the day for all of us.
Foodie, lazy, bookworm, and internet junkie. All in that order. Loves to floor the accelerator. Mad about the Himalayas and its trekking trails. Former life forester. Also an occasional writer and editor