Sunday. 14.04.2024

It is all everyone can talk about these days: Coronavirus or Covid-19. The world is, yet again, at odds with a pandemic -the World Health Organization declared it so last Wednesday, the 11th of March 2020-, with China and Italy, for example, having been in total lockdown since January and March respectively.

This virus has infected about 150 thousand people worldwide and there has been over 5500 deaths, so far, as we write this report.

It is commonly understood that 'epidemic' is when a contagious disease affects one country or region and 'pandemic' is when said disease crosses borders and affects more than one country or region.

Often experts disagree with such definitions but this much is agreed upon by all: the words describe a widespread of a contagious disease that happens in a specific area, and the numbers of those affected exceeds what would normally be expected.

In the past 10,000 years

And even though Covid-19 is currently a very serious menace to public and world health, this is not new and humanity has been dealing with these threats for the past 10,000 years since the shift from the hunter-gatherer days to agrarian life happened.

Diseases like Malaria, Tuberculosis, Smallpox, Influenza, SARS or Ebola have been part of our collective history and albeit, in recent years, the SARS and Ebola virus (for example) have killed and affected many people -when it comes to pandemics-, the list that follows are some of the worst that have affected our planet in the last 2000 years, in a chronological order:

1. Antonine Plague (165)

With symptoms like fever, swollen and sore throat and cough, it is estimated by historians that the death toll reached 5 million in the affected areas of Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece and Italy.

The experts think it may have been caused by smallpox or measles but the actual reason is still unknown.

2. Plague of the Justinian (541-542)

Thus called because of the Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire where it started, it had such symptoms like headache, fever, chills, gangrene, swollen or tender lymph nodes and is is estimated that it killed about 25 to 50 million people.

It was the first ever recorded outbreak of Bubonic Plague, the cause of this particular pandemic.

3. Bubonic Plague or the Black Death (1330-1353)

Affected mostly Europe and Asia, where it is thought to have originated and its symptoms were black boils, vomiting, fever, chills, diarrhea and pain.

It is believed to have killed a third of the world population at the time (between 75 to 200 million people) and its cause to be the fleas carried by black rats that were aboard merchant ships.Mask-gas-war-virus-plague-epidemic

4. Third Cholera Pandemic (1852-1860)

One of the seven global outbreaks of Cholera in history, it is thought to have originated in India and spread through the rest of Asia, Europe, North America and Africa.

Often considered the worst of all outbreaks, its symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, muscle cramps and cold skin. It killed over 1 million people worldwide.

5. Flu Pandemic (1889-1890)

Originally called the Russian flu as the first recorded case was in Russia, it reached the rest of the world in just four months due to the 19th century fast population growth.

It is now believed to have been caused by the Influenza A virus subtype H3N8 and it killed over 1 million people and its main symptoms were fever, headache and running cold.

6. Sixth Cholera Pandemic (1910-1911)

First originated in India and it soon spread to North Africa, Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe and it is estimated to have killed nearly 1 million people.

It was also the root of the last American cholera outbreak in the same time period.

7. Flu Pandemic or the Spanish Flu (1918)

With symptoms like dry cough, fever, fatigue and difficulty in breathing, it left 500 million people contaminated worldwide, killing about 25 million people in its first 25 weeks alone and roughly 50 to 100 million in total.

Though it is thought to have come from China due to the Influenza virus of avian origin, it is referred to as the Spanish Flu because of reports of a flu outbreak in the spring of 1918, in Madrid.

8. Asian Flu (1956-1958)

Caused by the Influenza A of the H2N2 subtype virus and with symptoms like body aches, fever, weakness, chills, cough and loss of appetite, it is thought to have been originated in China and killed between 1 to 2 million people, in total.

9. Flu Pandemic (1968)

With similar symptoms as previous flu pandemics, it originated in Hong Kong and it soon reached countries like Singapore, Vietnam, India, Philippines, Australia, several European countries and the United States.

Its cause was a strain of H3N2 of the A Influenza virus and it killed over 1 million people.


10. HIV/AIDS (since 1980/81)

Believed to have developed from a chimpanzee virus in West Africa in the 1920’s, it first appeared in Haiti in the 1960’s and New York and San Francisco in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.

Its symptoms include fever, rapid weight loss, diarrhea, pneumonia and sore throat and it has since killed a total of 35 to 36 million people worldwide.

There are still an estimated 70 million people living with this transmittable disease with the vast majority of those in Sub-Saharan Africa, where about 5% of the population is infected.

*Front Image credit: courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, D.C.

Top ten worst pandemics in recent history