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Top 10 Pandemics We Have Survived

by Jason Emmitt
fact checked by Jamie Frater

In today’s world the rise of transportation and exportation has opened the doors to numerous locations across the planet making our contact with other people more frequent than ever. It is easy to see how viral outbreaks might easily spread in such conditions, but what you might not realize is that global pandemics are not a new phenomenon. Below is a list of 10 pandemics throughout history that man has survived.

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10 1968 Hong Kong Flu Pandemic

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In July of 1968 an odd case of influenza was reported in Hong Kong. It was an H3N2 strain, on offshoot of H2N2 and it moved quick. Within two weeks cases were found in Singapore and Vietnam, and within 3 months it had spread to Australia, India, Europe and the United States.

At .5% the mortality rate was relatively low but that didn’t stop this bug from doing some major damage. By the time it was finally under control over a million people had died including over 500,000 in Hong Kong alone, decimating nearly 15% of its population.

There were also numerous casualties in West Germany and Berlin where the numbers were so high corpses were being placed in subway tunnels.

Luckily the strain shared traits with the Asian Flu of 1957 which it is believed helped people develop antibodies which may have helped lower the number of casualties.

9 1956 Asian Flu

The Silent Invader (Westinghouse Broadcasting, 1957)

The Asian Flu pandemic also found its roots in China claiming over 2 million lives before it was done. A blend of Avian strains and first reported in Singapore in 1956, the virus managed to spread across China before finding its way to the coat of the US in 1957.

According to the World Health Organization nearly 70,000 people died in the United States alone and many more throughout the world as this bad boy ran its two-year course.

8 1889 Russian Coronavirus Pandemic

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The first reports of this Flu outbreak came from three locations. Turkestan, Northwestern Canada, and Greenland, in May 1889. Originally thought to be virus subtype H2N2, it was recently discovered to actually be the coronavirus subtype H3N8.

The outbreak managed to spread fast and far due to population growth and modern transportation methods that made it easier for the disease to get from location to location. Within 5 weeks the virus had reached its peak with over a million lives being lost.

The 1889 Influenza was considered the first real epidemic during the bacteriology age. Scientists have studied the outbreak patterns for years and much has been learned from its pathology.

7 Antonine Plague of 165 AD

A History of Pandemics: Episode 2 – The Antonine Plague, 165-180 AD

When Roman soldiers returned home from Mesopotamia and the war with Parthia, they brought back more than just the spoils, they brought back a plague that killed nearly 5 million people before it had run its course.

Believed to be Smallpox or Measles this one ravaged the Roman army before moving on to parts of Egypt, Greece, Italy and Asia Minor. With their army laid waste the land was wide open to other attacks. Civil unrest grew and barbarians began invading. This outbreak is thought to have directly contributed to the fall of the Pax Romana era, a period when Rome was at the height of its power.

6 Plague of Justinian 541-549 AD

The Justinian Plague: First Pandemic? // Procopius (541-542) // Byzantine Primary Source

Called the first known pandemic by some, the Plague Of Justinian, named after the Roman emperor in Constantinople, Justinian I , it was believed to have killed nearly half the population of Europe.

The virus was the first recorded outbreak of the bubonic plague and, over an 8 year span, it wreaked havoc across Roman Egypt, the Mediterranean Sea, the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Europe.

At its height it is estimated this plague killed nearly 5,000 people a day in the city of Constantinople. The virus continued to eb and flow in waves over the next decade and it is estimated that 25 to 100 million lives were lost before it was all over, although some argue those numbers are likely high. Still, the impact was felt across the Roman Empire countryside. Its social impact was also wide reaching as the effects on farmers lead to a demand in grain and an increase in prices. It also weakened the Byzantine Empire at what would have been a critical point, as Justinian’s armies were set to retake the western Mediterranean cost and all of Italy in an attempt to reunify the Eastern Roman Empire to the Western Roman Empire.

5 Black Death of 1346

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One of the most famous plagues in history, The Black Death, ripped its way through Africa, Asia and Europe between 1346 and 1353. This run of the Bubonic Plague devastated the European landscape wiping out an estimated 50% of the population.

Spread by fleas it travelled across continents via rats that stowed away on merchant ships. The estimated death toll was between 80 to 200 million with bodied being burned or placed in mass graves.

With so many dead, it grew more difficult to find skilled labor. If there was an upside to the massive death toll it is that the demand for workers brought about better pay. It also lead to higher quality in food production and is been credited in contributing to advancements in technology.

Today it is believed that this particular strain has died off, no longer posing a threat to the population.

4 Spanish Flu of 1918

Spanish Flu: a warning from history

Unlike the current Chinese coronavirus which we now know originated in China, contrary to the name it is not believed the Spanish Flu strain of influenza began in Spain. At the time the virus was making its way across the globe, Spain was considered a neutral nation and thus had no censorship of the press. With no real restrictions stories of the outbreak were published in earnest, and, since Spain was the one talking about the disease, they were falsely believed to be the origin of it.

When the pandemic began World War I was still in effect enhancing the effects of the spread on soldiers who were often in tight conditions and suffering from malnutrition. It is estimated that over 500 million people were infected, and the mortality rate was upwards of 10-20% causing nearly 25 million deaths within the first 6 months. The odd thing was that, unlike other strains of influenza, the Spanish Flu didn’t seem to just target the young and elderly, but also healthy young adults.

When it finally came to an end in 1920 this one had made its way over a third of the globe and had taken the lives of nearly 50 million people.

3 3rd Cholera Pandemic of 1852

The Pandemic the World Has Forgotten

There were 7 cholera pandemics in total and this was considered the worst. Lasting for 8 years this outbreak, similar to the first and second outbreaks, was believed to have originated in India then spreading to Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.

In London, the disease was eventually tracked, thanks to British Physician Johnathan Snow, to a contaminated water source in 1854, the same year the pandemic reached its apex in Great Britain bringing about the deaths of 23,000 people. Snow began mapping the reported cases and noticed a cluster of them centering around a water pump located in a single neighborhood. It is said that this revelation was the turning point that eventually helped get the spread under control.

Before its end the Cholera Pandemic of 1852 took the lives of over a million people.

2 6th Cholera Pandemic of 1910

10. Asiatic Cholera (II): Five Pandemics

Much like the aforementioned third pandemic, the Sixth Cholera Pandemic was also thought to have found its roots in India where over 800,000 people died, before spreading to the Middle East, North Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe.

Having learned from the past American health authorities got a jump on the outbreak. They moved fast, locating and isolating the infected to help prevent the spread. Only 11 recorded deaths took place in the United States and the overall death toll was low in comparison to previous outbreaks.

As facts on the spread of Cholera became more understood the threat of this deadly bacteria was largely reduced in the early 1920’s, although many parts of India are still effected by it today.

1 HIV Pandemic of 1981

1985 “AIDS: An Incredible Epidemic” by San Francisco General Hospital

Accounts of the first known case of the HIV virus differ with some claiming it to have been in Norway in the late 60’s, and others saying the first known case was from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976. Most scientists believe it was developed from a Chimpanzee virus that transferred to humans in West Africa in the 1920’s but the first case of the virus in the United States was reported in 1981.

Without understanding of what the virus was or how it was spread fear began to grow as it quickly became a global crisis claiming the lives of over 36 million people since its discovery.

There was no cure, and for years there was no real way to treat it, but in the 1990s new drugs and procedures were discovered and eventually ways of controlling the virus came into effect. Today there are approximately 35 million people living with HIV, with over 60% of those being in Sub-Saharan Africa. People have learned to manage it, and, with regular treatment, most are able to live normal, productive lives. In early 2020 it was reported that through state-of-the-art stem cell replacement programs two people have been cured, both considered in “long term” remission and showing no active signs of the virus.

Unfortunately, global pandemics have been a part of life throughout history, but we have seen that man has overcome and will do so again . . . with dedication, compassion, and intelligence we are not only able to survive but thrive as well.

fact checked by Jamie Frater