Exploring the Pandemics Over the Years

On 11th March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 as a pandemic. This declaration of COVID-19 being a pandemic referred to the rapid spread of the disease, not the severity of the disease itself. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an illness has to surpass certain levels before it can reach the stage of pandemic. These levels can be classified as Sporadic, Endemic, Epidemic and Pandemic. An epidemic differs from a pandemic as epidemics are confined to a certain geographic area to the most extent and as epidemics spreads across continents, it can escalate to a pandemic phenomenon.

Pandemics are not new to mankind and they can have different causes as well. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, more commonly known as SARS, became the first pandemic of the 21st century and affected the world in 2002-03. It is becoming more relevant recently as like COVID-19, it was also caused by a Novel Coronavirus. While COVID-19, SARS and its similar relative Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are caused by a specific type of virus known as coronavirus, pandemics can also be caused by other pathogens, with influenza being the most prominent cause for numerous flu epidemics and pandemics over the centuries.

Plagued by The Plague

The plague is a highly infectious disease caused by Yersinia Pestis, transmitted by fleas and rodents. It made its first appearance in pandemic levels in the 14th century, around the year 1347, in a time that is now called The Black Death. The plague arrived in Europe when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina and people discovered that most sailors aboard the ships were already dead or were gravely ill. Over the next five years, the plague wiped out almost one-third of the continent’s population. This disease was extremely contagious and spread quickly from Messina to Rome, Florence, Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon and London by mid-1348’s. While the rich fled the cities, the poor were the worst affected with their squalid living surroundings and doctors refusing to treat the ill. This wave of Black Death seemed to have run its course by the end of 1350s, however, the plague continued to reappear every few generations in the following centuries.

The plague surfaced for a second time in London in 1665 with devastating effects. Now known as the Great Plague of London, it was the last wave of bubonic plague that struck England. Scorching hot and dirty, London at that time was the ideal habitat for plague transmitting rodents. Although comparatively less intense than the Black Death, the Great Plague raged across London, killing almost 15-20% of the population. Another misfortune that struck London in the year 1666, the Great Fire of London, destroyed the heavily infected areas of London and thus controlled the spread of the Great Plague of London.

The Great Plague of Marseilles was the last of the European outbreaks of the bubonic plagues on a pandemic scale. Arriving in France in 1720, the disease led to 100,000 fatalities in the city of Marseilles and nearby provinces. The plague of 1580 urged the city of Marseilles to take steps towards the future control of disease and a sanitation board and public hospitals with equipped doctors and nurses were set up. Even though the public health system was quickly overburdened with the Great Plague in 1720, Marseille quickly recovered from this plague outbreak.

La Grippe Espagnole

The Spanish Flu is considered as one of the worst influenza pandemics in the history of mankind, estimated to have killed 1% to 3% of the world’s population at that time. Caused by an H1N1 virus of an avian descent, the Spanish Flu spread across the world between the years 1918 and 1919. The outbreak first began in spring 1918 during the final months of World War I. Historians believe that the deplorable conditions in which the soldiers lived in during the devastating war acted as a catalyst for the rapid spread of the disease. Malnutrition and dirty, damp living conditions weakened the immune systems of the soldiers and caused the infectious illness known as ‘la grippe’ or ‘influenza’ to spread across the ranks and eventually across the world when the soldiers returned home. Spain, being a neutral nation, did not have strict censorship of their press and became one of the earliest countries where the epidemic was reported and identified. Hence, the name ‘Spanish Flu’ or ‘La Grippe Espagnole’ stuck. While the exact number is yet unknown, this outbreak of influenza is said to have infected around 500 million people across the world and with a fatality rate of 10-20%, taking the lives of 50-100 million victims. What made this influenza strain particularly deadly was the peculiarity of the victims. Almost all previous flu epidemics had been especially harsh on infants and juveniles or the elderly. However, the Spanish Flu struck down those who were in the prime of their lives and had previously been healthy and left the ones with an already weakened immune system relatively untouched. By spring 1919, the number of deaths from this disease began to increase, however many countries were still left devastated due to this outbreak and the Spanish Flue continues to be remembered as the worst flu pandemic that humanity has ever encountered.

The Global Phenomenon of HIV/AIDS

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the early 1980s. Since then, it has grown to pandemic proportions with more than 70 million people infected with the disease around the world, with an estimated 38 million people, including 1.7 million children, living with this disease in 2018. It has also claimed the lives of over 35 million people. With an estimated 68% of the affected people living in sub-Saharan Africa, HIV/AIDS affects those located in low- and middle- income countries the most. Africa continues to have the highest proportion of AIDS patients, with East and Southern Africa having over 19 million patients, followed by Western and Central Africa with around 6 million people living with HIV.

While a cure is yet unknown, new developments and treatments have made HIV/AIDS far more manageable. The global deaths from HIV/AIDS have been decreasing over the years, with the numbers dropping from 2.2 million to 1.6 million from 2005 to 2012 respectively. HIV infected patients face more than just the physical effects of the disease and are also burdened by the social stigma surrounding AIDS. 1st December of every year is marked as World AIDS Day in order to raise awareness on this pandemic, reduce the chances of infections and to reduce the negative stigma surrounding AIDS, making the lives of the ones infected easier.

Thus, looking back, mankind has faced numerous pandemics over the centuries and is yet to encounter newer ones in the future. However, the history of pandemics acts as evidence that humanity has overcome insurmountable problems and will continue to do so and emerge wiser. Lessons can be learnt from the past to help reduce the devastating impact of future pandemics. Containment, disease control and improved medical research have consistently proven as an aide to the fight against diseases and policymakers should use this knowledge to create stronger protective systems. Pandemics of the past give facts, guidelines and hope that pave the way for a better future for humanity.

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