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The History of Pandemics
Pan·dem·ic /panˈdemik/ (of a disease) prevalent over a whole country or the world.
As humans have spread across the world, so have infectious diseases. Even in this modern era, outbreaks are nearly constant, though not every outbreak reaches pandemic level as COVID-19 has.
Today’s visualization outlines some of history’s most deadly pandemics, from the Antonine Plague to the current COVID-19 event.
A Timeline of Historical Pandemics
Disease and illnesses have plagued humanity since the earliest days, our mortal flaw. However, it was not until the marked shift to agrarian communities that the scale and spread of these diseases increased dramatically.
Widespread trade created new opportunities for human and animal interactions that sped up such epidemics. Malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, influenza, smallpox, and others first appeared during these early years.
The more civilized humans became – with larger cities, more exotic trade routes, and increased contact with different populations of people, animals, and ecosystems – the more likely pandemics would occur.
Here are some of the major pandemics that have occurred over time:
|Name||Time period||Type / Pre-human host||Death toll|
|Antonine Plague||165-180||Believed to be either smallpox or measles||5M|
|Japanese smallpox epidemic||735-737||Variola major virus||1M|
|Plague of Justinian||541-542||Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas||30-50M|
|Black Death||1347-1351||Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas||200M|
|New World Smallpox Outbreak||1520 – onwards||Variola major virus||56M|
|Great Plague of London||1665||Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas||100,000|
|Italian plague||1629-1631||Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas||1M|
|Cholera Pandemics 1-6||1817-1923||V. cholerae bacteria||1M+|
|Third Plague||1885||Yersinia pestis bacteria / Rats, fleas||12M (China and India)|
|Yellow Fever||Late 1800s||Virus / Mosquitoes||100,000-150,000 (U.S.)|
|Russian Flu||1889-1890||Believed to be H2N2 (avian origin)||1M|
|Spanish Flu||1918-1919||H1N1 virus / Pigs||40-50M|
|Asian Flu||1957-1958||H2N2 virus||1.1M|
|Hong Kong Flu||1968-1970||H3N2 virus||1M|
|HIV/AIDS||1981-present||Virus / Chimpanzees||25-35M|
|Swine Flu||2009-2010||H1N1 virus / Pigs||200,000|
|SARS||2002-2003||Coronavirus / Bats, Civets||770|
|Ebola||2014-2016||Ebolavirus / Wild animals||11,000|
|MERS||2015-Present||Coronavirus / Bats, camels||850|
|COVID-19||2019-Present||Coronavirus – Unknown (possibly pangolins)||2.2M (Johns Hopkins University estimate as of Feb 1, 2021)|
Despite the persistence of disease and pandemics throughout history, there’s one consistent trend over time – a gradual reduction in the death rate. Healthcare improvements and understanding the factors that incubate pandemics have been powerful tools in mitigating their impact.
Wrath of the Gods
In many ancient societies, people believed that spirits and gods inflicted disease and destruction upon those that deserved their wrath. This unscientific perception often led to disastrous responses that resulted in the deaths of thousands, if not millions.
In the case of Justinian’s plague, the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea traced the origins of the plague (the Yersinia pestis bacteria) to China and northeast India, via land and sea trade routes to Egypt where it entered the Byzantine Empire through Mediterranean ports.
Despite his apparent knowledge of the role geography and trade played in this spread, Procopius laid blame for the outbreak on the Emperor Justinian, declaring him to be either a devil, or invoking God’s punishment for his evil ways. Some historians found that this event could have dashed Emperor Justinian’s efforts to reunite the Western and Eastern remnants of the Roman Empire, and marked the beginning of the Dark Ages.
Luckily, humanity’s understanding of the causes of disease has improved, and this is resulting in a drastic improvement in the response to modern pandemics, albeit slow and incomplete.
The practice of quarantine began during the 14th century, in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Cautious port authorities required ships arriving in Venice from infected ports to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing — the origin of the word quarantine from the Italian “quaranta giorni”, or 40 days.
One of the first instances of relying on geography and statistical analysis was in mid-19th century London, during a cholera outbreak. In 1854, Dr. John Snow came to the conclusion that cholera was spreading via tainted water and decided to display neighborhood mortality data directly on a map. This method revealed a cluster of cases around a specific pump from which people were drawing their water from.
While the interactions created through trade and urban life play a pivotal role, it is also the virulent nature of particular diseases that indicate the trajectory of a pandemic. Video
Scientists use a basic measure to track the infectiousness of a disease called the reproduction number — also known as R0 or “R naught.” This number tells us how many susceptible people, on average, each sick person will in turn infect.
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