The world has been fighting against the Covid-19 pandemic for over a year now. However, coronavirus is far from being humanity’s first clash with a large-scale virus. What does history reveal about dealing with pandemics and how has the world faced similar challenges in the past? We break down five of the most devastating pandemics that humankind has faced over the course of history.
The Plague of Justinian or Justinianic Plague is considered to be the first plague pandemic that claimed the lives of millions of people. The infection first broke out in A.D. 541–549 in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
The plague engulfed the entire Byzantine Empire and spread to Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and the Arabian peninsula like wildfire. The virus killed 30–50 million people, which accounted for nearly 30% of the population at the time.
The symptoms of Justinianic Plague included fever, strong headache, death of body tissues or gangrene, and diarrhea. The infection originated from the bubonic plague bacterium (Yersinia Pestis), which later caused a few deadly pandemics.
According to a professor at the University of Chicago, the Justinianic Plague ended because the disease killed its victims so fast that sometimes infected people didn't have the time to spread it to others. Moreover, some of the mildly infected people survived the infection and even built up immunity to it, which finally wiped out the virus.
The Black Death is also known as the Bubonic Plague. It was caused by the same bacterium (Yersinia Pestis) as Justinianic Plague. Over the course of a few millennia, it has claimed the lives of 75 to 200 million people.
Even though the disease hit Europe the hardest, it originated in the 14th century in the Gobi desert in present-day China. Rodents and fleas are thought to have been the initial vectors of the disease.
The disease first tore through China and India. Through trade, it then spread to Europe.
Some of the main symptoms of the Black Death were headaches, high fever, and sweating. What distinguished it from other diseases was that it caused pus-filled boils, the so-called buboes.
Even though 14th-century medicine had no experience in fighting against a pandemic, medieval doctors still found a solution. Since the disease was primarily transmitted from person to person, they decided to move infected people in total isolation. As well as this, European countries came up with a new rule whereby sailors intending to enter a particular European country had to stay aboard the ship for 30 days to prove that they were not infected with the disease. This played a major role in ending the pandemic.
The Black death was the first pandemic that society was able to overcome through specific regulations.
In the 1920s the world was swept by yet another pandemic. Cholera pandemic was brought on by a bacterium called Vibrio cholerae, which infects humans through contaminated food or water. The first cholera case was recorded in 1917 in Bengal. From there cholera spread across India, China, Malaysia, and the Caspian region.
Seven different cholera pandemics were recorded throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The disease was first detected in Georgia in 1840. The second cholera pandemic in the country broke out in 1919.
Cholera is considered to be an active disease to this day. However, it no longer is as prevalent as it used to be. According to the World Health Organization, 1.3 to 4 million people get infected with cholera every year, with 21 000 to 143 000 cases being fatal.
A new wave of the Black Death, once again in China, broke out in 1855. It quickly spread to the rest of the world claiming an estimated 12 million lives.
By that time, medicine already knew what helped spread the disease: lack of sanitation, humidity, and contact with an infected person. Even so, the actual cause of the infection remained unknown.
At the end of the 19th century, Swiss scientist Alexander Yersin discovered the bacterium causing the plague—Yersinis Pestis. This discovery made it possible to invent a vaccine and expanded the efforts towards beating the pandemic.
It’s thanks to this vaccine that the Black Death does not pose a danger today.
The Spanish flu was one of the deadliest pandemics in the history of humankind. It was exacerbated by the fact that it spread in 1918 during the First World War. The movement of the military was one of the contributing factors to the spread of the virus around the world.
In the end, more soldiers died from the Spanish Flu than in battle.
The estimated total death toll of the Spanish Flu is 20 to 50 million people. Some sources place the number at 100 million. The real death count is impossible to ascertain in the absence of adequate medical records.
Medicine turned out to be quite powerless in the face of this infection. There was no life-saving vaccine or medication.
Approximately a year after the outbreak of infection, the Spanish Flu pandemic ended on its own in the summer of 1919, after the majority of the infected people had died and the rest had built up immunity to it.
These days the world is facing yet another tough challenge. For the second year now we have been fighting against the Covid-19 pandemic. As this overview of the history of the deadliest pandemics reveals, humanity’s past experiences with pandemics were incredibly fatal. Now we have an opportunity to defeat the virus relatively more successfully. To this day the only way to achieve this is vaccination.