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History, Taken Aback: Delving Into the Deadliest Pandemics That Killed Many

Updated on September 2, 2020

A Step Back to Time

In this discussion, history will show how the earliest pandemics had wiped out parts of the population on a massive scale.

Centuries before the current COVID-19 event, some of the world's deadliest pandemics once flourished. As humans across the globe spread, so did the infectious diseases. Way back, people usually live in close proximity to each other and as well as animals, and oftentimes with poor sanitation and nutrition. Because of this, it provided the appropriate breeding grounds for diseases.

Below is a visualization of the timeline of the earlier pandemics.

History of Pandemics
History of Pandemics | Source
History’s deadliest pandemics, from ancient Rome to modern America
History’s deadliest pandemics, from ancient Rome to modern America | Source

The Antonine Plague (165-180 A.D.)

Also known as the "Plague of Galen". It was the first pandemic recorded in the history of man. The disease was said to be brought back to Rome by the returning soldiers from Mesopotamia around 165 AD. This ancient pandemic greatly affected not only Rome but as well as other neighboring countries such as Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and Italy. The disease is thought to have been caused by early contagion of smallpox or measles. At one point, the pandemic lasted long enough that the estimated death toll in a day amounted to 2,000. Also, as the disease spread, it ended killing 5 million people in the process. Even in the present time, it remained a mystery as to what the true cause of the disease was.

Antonine: The Plague of Galen And The Fall of Rome
Antonine: The Plague of Galen And The Fall of Rome | Source

Plague of Justinian (541-542 A.D.)

This major pandemic was said to have been the preceding cause of the macabre outbreaks that would later hit mankind. It was considered to be one of the deadliest plagues known in history, with a massive mortal flaw. It was said to have started in Egypt. Trade was widespread during these times. The merchant ships carried disease-carrying rodents to other continents hence the reason why it was recorded to have swept three continents across. The disease killed 300,000 people at most during its first year of contagion.

The Plague of Justinian
The Plague of Justinian | Source

The name "Justinian" was derived from the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who reigned from AD 527 to 565. This pandemic and the next major pandemic that would come, Black Death, were both found to have been caused by the same microbe, Yersinia pestis. People who have contracted this disease would show symptoms of mild fever, headache, swollen or tender lymph nodes, abdominal pain, and episodes of delusions. The black blisters (filled with pus) were the sure sign that someone contacted the disease. This disease was a fast-acting plague that only seemed to be a mild infection at that start but leaves behind far too many corpses- too many that the bodies were buried in multiple graves, or large pits

This plague left its mark on the world after decimating Constantinople and spreading like wildfire across other nearby continents. The population of Europe was reduced perhaps to half of its population, killing 30-50 million people in its year-long reign of terror.

10 Scary Facts About The Justinian Plague
10 Scary Facts About The Justinian Plague | Source

Black Death ( around 1347-1352)

History Today, a monthly magazine of historical writing published in London, calls this pandemic β€œthe greatest catastrophe ever.” Its predecessor, Justinian Plague, never really went away. After 800 years later, it came back and tripled the number of deaths with reckless abandon. This was a very devastating plague that killed men, women, and children in their thousands quickly and mercilessly.

Europe was hit with Black Death around the year 1347 which claimed a staggering death toll between 75 million and 200 million people in just four years. The same way its predecessor erupted, it was thought to have caused by flea-infested rats that frequently lived aboard in merchant ships. For the symptoms, the disease is identified by the blackening that forms in the groin or armpit area of the infected person. Other symptoms also include bodily aches, cold, lethargy, and a high fever. When the infection gets worse by each passing time, the infection will get into the bloodstream that will eventually poison the blood, leading to the probable death.

Fast and lethal, the Black Death spread more than a mile per day
Fast and lethal, the Black Death spread more than a mile per day | Source

You might be wondering how the word "quarantine" became the widely known practice of prevention from diseases today. It was invented around this time. The reason being was there was an unceasing amount of victims that contracted the deadly disease, Black Death. By putting the infected victims in a 40-day quarantine, it will help contain the disease and stop the spread of infection. Also, mass graves of bodies were done during this time since proper burial could no longer be initiated because the disease spread like wildfire. In all of its entirety, at least one-third of Europe's population died from what became known as the Black Death.

Ancient DNA traces the Black Death to Russia’s Volga region
Ancient DNA traces the Black Death to Russia’s Volga region | Source

New World: Smallpox Outbreak (1520-onwards)

The arrival of Europeans in the Americas only did not bear tokens of friendship. They also brought along with them diseases such as smallpox, measles, and other viruses for which the New World inhabitants had zero natural immunity.

The origin of smallpox was unknown. It is believed to date back to the Egyptian Empire around the 3rd century BCE when there were researchers who discovered a smallpox-like rash on three mummies. Smallpox is thought to have first infected humans around the time of agricultural settlements and trade. Like the diseases that preceded, smallpox was a devastating disease. It would kill 3 out of every 10 people. However, even for those who survived, they are usually left with pockmarked scars.

The effects of smallpox in the Americas were worse compared to the moral fatality in the Old World. The indigenous people of America and modern-day Mexico, which has no immunity, worsen since these are people with no exposure to the virus prior to the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. The population was said to be greatly decimated by up to 95 percent, a catastrophic blow in history.

The Rise and Fall of Smallpox
The Rise and Fall of Smallpox | Source

Centuries later on, smallpox had become the first virus epidemic that was ended by a vaccine thanks to the discovery of a British doctor named Edward Jenner. During the 18th century, he observed that the milkmaids who got infected with a milder virus called cowpox seemed immune to smallpox. After getting this track that may lead to the discovery of immunity to the virus, the English doctor experimented. He inserted pus into the arms of a healthy 8-year old boy which he took from the milkmaid who was infected with cowpox ( a disease closely related to smallpox) and exposed him to the smallpox virus. It resulted in no ill effect. The annihilation of smallpox only lasted for two more centuries upon the discovery of the vaccine before it had been completely eradicated from the face of the Earth.

The first vaccine was created thanks to a shocking experiment on an 8-year-old boy
The first vaccine was created thanks to a shocking experiment on an 8-year-old boy | Source

Spanish Flu (1918-1919)

The Spanish Flu pandemic was considered the deadliest in history. A number of 500 million people around the globe were infected. This pandemic outbreak began around 1918 during the final months of the Great War took place (also known today as World War 3) and Spain was one of the earliest countries where the epidemic got identified thus came the origin of the pandemic name. It is said that flu influenza killed more people than the actual war. The death toll was somewhere between 20 million and 40 million people. Although the first major blow happened in Spain, the flu was first observed in Europe, the United States, parts of Asia, and the other surrounding continents. It was believed to be caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Today it remains a universal consensus regarding the origin of the virus that afflicted many in 1918-1919.

Spanish Flu
Spanish Flu | Source

Around this time, preventive measures such as wearing masks were imposed in order to prevent infection. There was also no effective treatment or medication to cure the disease.

Influenza, or flu, is a virus that attacks the respiratory system. It is highly contagious. The transmission can be done when the infected person coughs, talks, or sneezes, the excreted fluid generated are blown into the air that can be inhaled by anyone nearby. Also, a person who touches something with the virus on it and then touches his or her mouth, eyes, or nose can likely become infected.

Coronavirus Is Very Different From the Spanish Flu of 1918. Here’s How.
Coronavirus Is Very Different From the Spanish Flu of 1918. Here’s How. | Source

The symptoms that usually show when a person is infected by the flu will include chills, aching muscles, fever, weakness, and nasal congestion, other also experience persistent cough, weakness, and sore throat. The symptoms are quite similar to the current COVID-19 event.

Spanish Flu: The killer that still stalks us, 100 years on
Spanish Flu: The killer that still stalks us, 100 years on | Source

But unlike the other pandemic outbreaks, the flu pandemic came to an end. As those that were infected either died or developed an immunity.

Author's note

Throughout the years, humanity has persisted and overcame the challenges that came. Just as Bernard Williams quoted, "Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit"


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