Worst Plagues in History
Two years have come and gone since the start of the pandemic. This time will undoubtedly leave a mark on humanity. Our lives look very differently now from the amount of times we wash our hands to how we work from home. However, this was not the first time in history we were hit by a plague. In this article we would like to look over some of the worst such events. If you are prone to anxiety, you might want to move to a different article here.
Antonine Plague (165–180 AD)
The Roman soldiers fought in many places for the glory of their empire. But wars are often the best spreaders of disease. Such was the case when in 168 AD an epidemic broke among the troops stationed in Acquilea. From there it further spread to the rest of the empire. Its most important victim was co-emperor Lucius Verus in 169. Marcus Aurelius was also infected, but he got better and would continue to reign until 180. Historians are still split regarding the nature of the disease, but the main suspect is smallpox.
Cocoliztli Epidemic (1545–1548)
The arrival of Europeans in America meant the doom of the majority of the natives. New diseases for which they did not have any immunity hit them hard. During the 16th Century the Aztecs of Mexico were nearly wiped out by what they would call the cocoliztli diseases. Historians have several culprits. Genomic research found evidence that Salmonella was present. Others believe it could have been an extreme case of an indigenous hemorrhagic fever as well. It is quite possible that it was not just one disease, but several which flourished in the chaos of the period.
Spanish Influenza (1917–1919)
The deadliest pandemic in history was the H1N1 strain of the flu virus. Its origins are still disputed, from an American military base in Kansas to Hong Kong. It got its name from the fact that wartime censorship did not allow the press to write about it. However, since Spain was neutral it was the first country to publish something about it. Lowest estimates are around 20 million deaths while the highest go to around 100 million. A strain of the virus made a comeback between 1977 and 1979 when it killed around 700,000 people.
HIV/AIDS Pandemic (1981 — Present Day)
The World Health Organization still calls it a ‘global epidemic’. However, by now, its scope is as large as a pandemic and many authors describe it as such. The exact origins of the disease are still unknown. At a certain point the virus made the jump from primates to humans. David Carr might have been the first known case, back in 1959. There were other cases recorded over time, but doctors still had many questions. Gaetan Dugas is often considered to be Patient Zero of the current pandemic. He was a flight attendant and thus had the means to spread it in multiple places.
The Plague of Justinian (541–542 AD)
Justinian was a pretty good emperor, working to rebuild some of the former glory. He saw some success in reconquering parts of the Western empire. However, his reign would mark one of the first brushes Europe had with bubonic plague. As usual, the disease most likely came on a merchant ship. The first major settlement it hit was the port city of Pelusium, in Egypt. Historians are not certain how many people lost their lives, but estimates range from 15 to 100 million. At any rate, such numbers are colossal given the small population in that period.
West Africa Ebola Epidemic (2013–2016)
Ebola is one of the scariest known diseases. It takes its name after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the first two cases were identified. Periodic outbreaks were common, but the one in December 2013 quickly got out of hand. It was the first time that there were Ebola cases outside of Africa. However, these were mostly contained to medical workers returning from countries hit by the disease. The authorities did a very good job in the containment of possible outbreaks. Also, the symptoms of hemorrhagic fevers are easy to spot and asymptomatic patients are not a common occurrence.
The Black Death (1346–1353)
This might be the best know pandemics in history. When it hit Europe in the 14th Century it devastated its population. The highest estimate for the death toll goes to around 200 million in the span of a few years. The Bubonic Plague came with the fleas on rats which hitched a ride on merchant vessels coming from Asia. Authorities in city ports made attempts to quarantine the crews but with little success. It would spring again on multiple occasions until the 19th Century. The Black Death had a lasting impact on Europe. The death of so many people freed up many resources which improved the life of the survivors.
Since we live in ever growing communities and an interconnected world we are prone to epidemics and pandemics. As we find faster means of transportation, the germs join us in our travels. We need to adapt in order to prevent new health dangers. However, we should not despair, history proves we are both resourceful and resilient.
For more details on diseases and their prevention please visit the sites of official institutions: Centres for Disease Controls and Prevention, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, World Health Organization.
Originally published at https://www.theworldbriefly.com on March 18, 2022.