Covid19 has taught humanity lots of things, but the most memorable lesson is the same old saying, “we are never safe enough when it comes to pandemics.” After WWII, the world got blind to the threats posed to humanity by viruses and bacteria. Focus shifted to nuclear annihilation as the most likely cause of the apocalypse, but Covid19 has brought back the same old fears. Most Major pandemics in history had a rather mysterious start, and as you are about to find out, they some also end mysteriously.
The Third Cholera Pandemic
The globe saw four major cholera pandemics between the 1830s and the 1920s, but none was as severe as the 1840 to 1860 outbreak. This was the worst pandemic of the 19th century but also the one that proved that medical research can save the world. It originated in India around 1837 and lasted until the 1860s while spreading all over the world. The disease claimed millions of lives. Over one million deaths were recorded in Russia alone. In Great Britain, there were at least 23,000 deaths, with most cases concentrated in London.
The worst affected countries were in Africa, Asia, and North America, although some of these countries were not keeping records of deaths at the time, so the actual death figures are not known. It is believed that over 10 million people succumbed to the disease in Asia alone. Researchers discovered that the disease spread through contaminated water, which prompted people to start washing hands and boiling drinking water.
The Third Plague Pandemic
The Third Cholera Pandemic was deadly but not as catastrophic as the Third Plague Pandemic to India. In 1855, a group of miners in Yunnan, China, got into contact with the plague-carrying yellow-breasted rats. The disease soon spread to Hong Kong and Bombay, then a British colony.
The governments weren’t prepared, and India didn’t have a well-developed healthcare system at the time. The disease soon killed 10 million people in India alone and another two million in China. It was the last known major appearance of the plague, which is believed to have continued killing people in the world until 1981.
The Black Death
You’ve probably heard of this one already, but its scare never grows old, does it? Giovanni Boccaccio, the Italian Poet, wrote, “the malady was so efficient. People that went to bed healthy would wake up dead.” The disease originated from trade ships that docked at the coast of Sicily in March 1347, and though the authorities tried to quarantine the infected sailors, the efforts didn’t help. The plague caused people to develop black boils that oozed blood and puss.
The victims would then descend into severe symptoms such as diarrhoea, headaches, fever, and eventually death. At the peak of the deaths in Florence alone, there were over 5,000 people dying every day, and people were too scared to even bury their dead family members. It killed over 20 million people in Europe alone. The plague affected Europe, Asia, and Africa and kept coming back after every few years until the 17th century when it finally disappeared. It still remains the deadliest pandemic in known history.
The Spanish Flu
There were no flu shots in 1918, so when you caught it, your chances of living decreased drastically. The pandemic was the most severe Influenza outbreak in history. Its victims included young and healthy people who are usually the most resistant to flu symptoms. The first wave happened in the spring of 1918, but the worst wave came in the heart of WWI in the fall.
At its peak, more soldiers were dying from the flu than the battle itself. The death toll in America was 675,000, while the global toll remains unclear. The disease infected an estimated 500 million people, about a third of the global population at the time. The death toll runs from anywhere between 20 to 100 million. It was the first time governments made quarantine and wearing face masks in public mandatory.
The first victim of HIV was recorded in 1959 in Congo, where the virus is believed to have been transferred from apes to human beings. There was little research on the disease at that point, and most scientists assumed that it only affected gay men until deaths started occurring universally. Up to date, over 100 million have caught the virus so far, and nearly half of those have succumbed.
In 2019 alone, the UN recorded over 500,000 deaths linked to AIDS and related complications. It remains one of the longest-lasting pandemics in human history, with most cases recorded in Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa carrying nearly 70% of the cases. The use of antiretroviral medication has helped reduce the deaths globally, although it remains a threat to humanity.
The Antonine Plague
The Roman Empire flourished under the two powerful rulers Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, who shared the empire between 16iCE and 169CE. The sad news is that both of them may have died from the Antonine plague named after the latter. Verus’ troops caught the plague while they were battling in Asia in 165 CE. As they moved back to Italy, they infected every city in their way from Greece to Italy.
The plague consumed the bigger portion of the Roman fighting force, forcing Aurelius to recruit peasants into the army. It is not clear which disease it was. Some people claim it may have been Measles, although there is no evidence of that. It had killed nearly 20% of the entire population of the Roman Empire by the time it subsided in the late 180s.
The Cocoliztli Epidemics
Cocoliztli is the term used to describe a string of mysterious outbreaks in the Aztec empire, modern Mexico, which nearly wiped out the entire indigenous population. The exact cause of the diseases is still unclear, but the victims are known to have suffered from high fevers and extensive bleeding. Cocoliztli is simply the native term for pestilence, which was adopted because the people didn’t know what was killing them either.
Historians believe that the diseases came with the arrival of the Europeans on the Mexican coast. The pestilences that wiped out people in their millions between 1520 and 1813 came in five major waves. They reduced the Aztec population from 30 million to just two million. Modern research has suggested that the epidemics may have been waves of Measles and Smallpox, which hit the population hard because their immune systems had not been exposed to the diseases before.
WWI Typhus Pandemic
The Spanish flu was a major killer during WWI, but it wasn’t nearly as feared among the soldiers as Typhus. While the flu spread West to Spain, Typhus spread East from Belgrade to Moscow. It started in the poorly sanitized camps where POWs were kept in Austria, spreading by lice among the prisoners.
The disease soon caught the doctors and the guards, and that is how millions of soldiers died on the Eastern front. When the Germans stopped their advance on Moscow, they actually avoided the plague and also prevented the spread of the deadly flu East. Typhus killed over 5 million people from Austria to Moscow.
The Justinian Plague
The Roman empire was hit by many deadly plagues, but none hit as hard as the Justinian Plague. It struck between the sixth and the seventh century during the reign of Emperor Justinian. It is believed to have been caused by the same bacteria that caused the black death brought by infected rats in grain ships from North Africa. Rome depended highly on grain from Africa at the time, so as more ships docked, more rats came, and with more rats came more deaths.
When the plague finally landed in the densely populated Constantinople, deaths shot up to 5,000 per day. It is believed to have been the first occurrence of the plague, and it killed up to 50 million people in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The disease reappeared and disappeared mysteriously in waves until 750 when it disappeared for good but not before wiping out a quarter of the human population.
The Asian Flu Pandemic
By 1957, the vaccine for Influenza had been discovered, but the then flu shots didn’t work on the strains that originated from China in two waves between 1957 and 1968. Deaths in China soared quickly to over 100,000 by the end of 1958. The disease spread across the world, killing people in Europe and Africa. The deaths caused directly by the flu, and related causes are stated to have been somewhere between 3 and 6 million, although the actual numbers may be higher because records in parts of Africa and Asia were not kept at the time. The vaccine finally came in 1968, saving humanity once more.