For years now, scientists and the entire medical community have argued over what can be called a pandemic and what its exact definition is. The consensus is, it is a phenomenon where a particular disease has a widespread occurrence, which is more than what normally would have been in a set geographical region.
Throughout human history, we have witnessed several such occurrences of disease outbreaks that had reached a pandemic level, causing a high number of fatalities. Bubonic plague, Influenza, HIV, cholera, and smallpox, to name a few. The last one caused the greatest number of fatalities (between 300-500 million) during its existence. Today we will be recapping the top 10 outbreaks of the worst pandemics in history.
1. COVID-19 (Coronavirus)
The beginning of December 2019 witnessed a new kind of virus that was earlier unknown to humanity. The epicentre of the virus was Wuhan in China. This new virus was named COVID-19, which was a shorter way of saying ‘coronavirus disease of 2019’. Its newness meant that humans were more susceptible to catching and spreading it and did not have immunity against it. The virus started to spread worldwide within a few months, affecting several people. This fast transmission led the WHO to declare it as a pandemic in March. By the end of the month, the world witnessed over half a million cases and more than 30,000 deaths worldwide. With cases rising faster than anticipated, governments across several countries had declared strict measures like lockdowns and prompted shutting down educational institutions, businesses, markets. With any pandemic, humankind was fighting for its survival again.
The disease was first identified in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has since then taken more than 36 million lives worldwide. The current count of active cases is between 31-35 million. A majority of these cases are in the sub-Saharan region of Africa. Since its discovery, we have learned a lot about the virus and come up with medications and treatments to make it more manageable. We are still in search of a cure; researchers have been able to bring down the mortality rates from 2.2 million to 1.6 million through constant efforts between 2005-2012.
3. Flu/Influenza (1968)
This pandemic, also known as the ‘Hong Kong Flu‘, took the lives of 1 million people during its outbreak in 1968. It was caused by a new strain of H3N2 Influenza A virus, which was the genetic offshoot of the earlier known H2N2 type. The place of origin for this virus was Hong Kong, and it took less than three months for the outbreak to reach India, Australia, the Philippines, and the United States. Even with a low mortality rate of .5%, it claimed the lives of 15% of Hong Kong’s population back then.
4. Asian Flu (1956-1958)
This outbreak happened in Guizhou, China, in the year 1956 and lasted till 1958. It was caused by the H2N2 subtype of the Influenza A. It claimed the lives of approximately 2 million people during the outbreak. And it spread up to The United States over the two active years.
5. Bubonic Plague (1346-1353)
Perhaps one of the most known pandemics, the Bubonic Plague had claimed close to 200 million lives throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Thought to have spread through fleas that live on rats, which lived on board merchant ships. The spread of this disease was facilitated by trades through ports.
6. Sixth Cholera pandemic (1910-1911)
Similar to its previous episodes, the sixth cholera was equally devastating in its mortality rate, where it claimed the lives of approximately 8 lac victims. It originated in India and spread up to Russia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and North Africa. This also caused the last outbreak of cholera in America.
7. Flu/Influenza (1889-1890)
This outbreak was also known as ‘Russian Flu’ or ‘Asiatic Flu’ which was caused by the H3N8 strain of the Influenza A virus. It claimed the lives of 1 million people. The initial cases were discovered in Bukhara, Athabasca, and Greenland in 1889. The rapid growth in population in the urban areas helped the outbreak grow to pandemic levels.
8. Flu/Influenza (1918)
This flu outbreak was one of the worst outbreaks in the history of humanity, claiming the lives of 20-50 million people across the globe. This time the mortality rate was as high as 10% – 20 %. The only difference this time was that it was affecting healthy adults as opposed to just the elderly and young population. It killed about 25 million in the first 25 weeks of the outbreak.
9. Justinian Plague (541-542)
This plague was caused by the Bubonic plague and had claimed the lives of over 25 million people. It had spread throughout the Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean cities which were situated near ports. It is also thought to be known as the first pandemic of Bubonic Plague, and it left its mark on humanity by taking the lives of a quarter of the Eastern Mediterranean population then. It also destroyed almost 40% of the city of Constantinople.
10. Antonine Plague (165 AD)
Another name for this plague is the Plague of Galen, and this was a pandemic that had severely affected Egypt, Italy, Asia Minor, and Greece. It is speculated that it was caused by smallpox or measles, but we cannot be certain about the actual cause. It is thought that soldiers brought it back from Mesopotamia to Rome, and that led to the plague claiming close to 5 million lives. It also reduced the size of the Roman army significantly.
These were the top 10 worst pandemics that the world has seen since the beginning of humanity. From time to time, pandemics have taught humanity new ways to adjust and survive. We have faced unknown and newer threats in the form of diseases but have always managed to defeat them. The latest COVID-19 pandemic is no different than its predecessors. Staying cautious and being responsible is the only way to beat any pandemic.