5 major pandemics and epidemics that struck the world

Photo by Mathew Schwartz via Unsplash
In the wake of the coronavirus crisis that has swept across the globe today, a dive into previous pandemics and epidemics provide an insight into our past and how human civilisations dealt with these deadly outbreaks.

1. Plague of Justinian, 541-549 AD

Among the deadliest pandemics to ever be recorded, three were caused by the same bacterium of the Yersinia pestis species — causing the infamous plague which devastated continents and killed millions. The Plague of Justinian marked the beginning of the first plague pandemic, arriving in Roman Egypt in 541 AD. It then made its way around the Mediterranean Sea, Northern Europe and the Arabian Peninsula. According to court historian Procopius, the plague is said to be named after the Roman emperor Justinian I, who supposedly contracted the disease and recovered from it in 542.

The disease which is carried by rodent fleas soon dispersed across the globe and is estimated to have killed between 30 to 50 million people — around half of the world’s population during then.


2. The Black Death, 1346-1353

Arriving from Asia to Europe in 1347, this plague claimed the lives of a staggering 75-200 million people. Caused by the same bacterium as observed in the Plague of Justinian, The Black Death marked the beginning of the second plague pandemic. The plague disproportionately affected the working class peasants who were more vulnerable to contracting the disease due to unhealthy diets and lack of sanitation. Symptoms ranged from extreme fever to the blackening of skin tissues and unpleasant swellings around the body.

Carried along ancient travel routes and merchant ships, ‘The Black Death’ plague was believed by many to be a divine punishment — a sign of God’s disapproval of sinful human actions. Due to a lack of scientific understanding, people retreated to severe methods such as self-flagellation in an attempt to rid themselves of the disease and avoid judgment from God.

This plague also marked the origination of the term “quarantine” — derived from the Latin word for 40, quadraginta. Officials in the Venetian-administered port city of Ragusa were able to slow the spread of the disease by establishing the Trentino law, where ships arriving from affected areas were given an isolation period of 30 days. Over time, the amount was extended to 40 days and the term changed to quarantino — resulting in the English word ‘quarantine’ that is in use today.


3. The Great Plague, 1665-1666

Occurring within the second phase of the centuries-long plague pandemic, ‘The Great Plague’ of 1665 was the last major epidemic to take place in England. Although the scale of devastation it caused was on a smaller scale, it is recalled as ‘The Great Plague’ because it was last of the extensive outbreaks during the 400-year (1331-1750) second pandemic.

According to the National Archives, London lost 15% of its population during this period, with the plague causing an estimated total of 100,000 deaths within the city. The then King, Charles II, fled from London to Oxford to avoid contracting the disease but the poor were left with no choice but to stay.

The renowned nursery rhyme and English folk song ‘Ring-a-ring o’ roses’ is thought to be reminiscent of The Great Plague in 17th century London. The ‘roses’ are said to signify the red marks on the skin, the ‘posies’ being the flowers people carried in an attempt to avert the disease, ‘atishoo’ exhibiting the sound of a sneeze and ‘we all fall down’ referring to those who died. However, despite this widespread belief of it symbolising the pandemic, the poem is open to various interpretations of origin due to a lack of evidence.


4. Smallpox

The CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) reports that on average, 3 out of every 10 people who got Smallpox died. Although the deadly virus has now been eradicated, it forged new and enhanced pathways for medical practice in containing the spread. Caused by the variola virus, the disease could be directly transmitted from person-to-person by infectious droplets from the nose or mouth as a result of coughing or sneezing.

Throughout history, Smallpox occurred in intermittent phases across the globe. First existing in ancient Indian, Chinese and Egyptian cultures — it travelled to Europe during the Crusades of the 11th century. As Europe began to colonise the world, the disease spread on a larger scale.

The Aztecs of the Americas were among the various indigenous populations to be affected by European colonisation and the epidemics that were brought with it. Upon the Spanish invasion of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan in 1521, the smallpox epidemic served as a form of biological warfare in Spain’s claim to the Aztec empire. The disease decimated the vulnerable civilians that had not been previously exposed to the virus and reduced the population by 40 per cent in just one year.

In 1796, the first successful vaccine to tackle the Smallpox epidemic was developed by Edward Jenner. By May 1980, the World Health Organisation officially declared the world free of this disease after stringent medical and international efforts.


5. Cholera, 1817-1961

Caused by the potent bacterium Vibrio cholerae, the cholera epidemics and pandemics have spanned across the globe intermittently over the last 3 centuries. A total of 7 cholera pandemics have been recognised since from 1817 to 1961, and outbreaks continue to occur to this day. Due to malnutrition and the on-going civil war, UNICEF and WHO declared the resurgence of cholera in Yemen in 2017 — with approximately half of the cases being children.

Although cholera is a highly treatable disease today, the affected person may become dehydrated quickly and deteriorate in condition if not treated on time. Modern sewage and water systems have also been able to prevent the spread of cholera. However, regions suffering from humanitarian crises such as Yemen remain vulnerable to outbreaks due to a lack of sufficient facilities and medical care.


Words by: Zakia N | Subbing: Warshma Chughtai

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