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Here’s How 6 of the Worst Pandemics in History Finally Ended

1. Plague of Justinian

Let’s start off this list of deadliest pandemics with the Plague of Justinian, which broke out in Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire’s capital. It decimated this region and spread like wildfire. Procopius, a scholar in those times, described that victims of this disease suffered delusions, nightmares, and even coma. He further added that some victims died almost immediately after the onset of initial symptoms.

Overview

History

How did it start?

After Emperor Justinian conquered Egypt, grains were sent in carts and ships over the Mediterranean Sea as a tribute to him. Infectious fleas afflicted the rats that snacked on this grain. The disease’s spread was enhanced due to trade and war waged by the Emperor for control over Italy.

How did it originate?

Its origin is traced back to a bacterium named Yersinia pestis. It is a fatal infection that is otherwise known as the plague. Interestingly, 3 of the deadliest pandemics in history have their genesis in this single bacterium. Its geographical point of origin is believed to be Egypt.

When did it start?

It started in 541 CE.

Duration

This lasted almost a year from its first appearance in 541 CE. However, it continued to sweep throughout the Mediterranean world for the next 225 years and finally disappeared in 750 CE.

Affected count

This plague affected nearly half of Europe’s population. Unfortunately, the Emperor caught this disease as well.

Death count

It is estimated that this outbreak took the lives of 30-50 million people, about half of the global population at the time, making it one of the world’s worst pandemics.

Number of countries affected by the disease

After this plague reached Constantinople, it spread across the globe like wildfire and affected regions of Asia, Europe, Arabia, and North Africa.

When did this pandemic end?

It ceased in 549 CE.

Willaim Rosen, the author of Justinian’s Flea, points out that people lacked access to treatment and often turned to home remedies. These included alkaloids, magic amulets and rings, cold baths, and powders “blessed” by saints, among others. Those who survived, adds Rosen, were credited with “good fortune and an uncompromised immune system.”

2. Spanish flu

It first appeared in the United States, Europe, and parts of Asia, gradually spreading across the world in three distinct waves. During its first wave, a majority of the infected experienced typical flu-like symptoms. 

However, the subsequent waves were highly contagious and carried bacterial pneumonia. Victims’ lungs filled up with fluid, their skin turned blue, and they ultimately succumbed to suffocation. This makes Spanish flu the second on the list of deadliest pandemics.

Overview

History

How did it start?

Spanish flu began when a new strain of influenza virus afflicted individuals, against which the population had zero immunity. This virus is transmitted from person to person by way of airborne respiratory secretions.

How did it originate?

Its geographical point of origin remains unknown.

When did it start?

Cases of the Spanish flu were first reported in 1918.

Duration

This disease took place in three waves of infection between 1918-1920.

Affected count

Spanish flu infected approximately 500 million people across the globe – about one-third of the world’s population. As a result, America’s average life expectancy plummeted by a dozen years in 1918.

Death count

Spanish flu falls among the world’s worst pandemics as the most severe influenza outbreak of the 20th century. Although exact figures remain obscure, the estimated death toll of this flu falls between 20 million to 50 million individuals worldwide. Moreover, some studies indicate that the actual death count was as high as 100 million, about 3% of the global population.

Number of countries affected by the disease

The first wave: This disease first appeared during World War I. Consequently, troops spread it through several countries, such as the United States, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland. From the Western Front countries, it travelled to Eastern Europe and North Africa. Subsequently, it reached Japan and its colonies in Korea and Taiwan as well as British India. The second wave: It spread from France to Boston and Brazil, eventually reaching other African countries. Additionally, it hit Russia and the rest of Central America, North America, and South America. The third wave: This wave began in Australia and spread across Europe, especially France, Serbia, and Great Britain. It also reached Mexico, while the US witnessed isolated outbreaks in several cities.

When did this pandemic end?

This disease ended its deadly global march when the flu-causing H1N1 strain began to mutate in 1919.

However, this flu still persists through the descendants of the H1N1 virus, which make up the influenza strains we are fighting today.

3. Smallpox

Smallpox was an endemic in Asia, Europe, and Arabia for centuries, killing about 30% of the population. However, this death rate paled compared to the devastation it caused to Native Americans in modern-day Mexico and the United States. It’s fast transmission rate made it one of the worst pandemics in the world.

Overview

History

How did it start?

This disease arrived in the New World alongside the first European explorers. The indigenous people of the region had no natural immunity to the virus, which cut them down by millions.

How did it originate?

The origin of smallpox remains unknown. However, smallpox-like rashes on Egyptian mummies suggest its existence for over 3,000 years. Furthermore, the earliest written descriptions of a disease like smallpox first appeared in China (4th century CE), followed by India (7th century) and Asia Minor (10th century).

When did it start?

Smallpox was first reported in America in the 15th century.

Duration

Smallpox lasted for centuries.

Affected count

Smallpox affected an estimated 30 million Native Americans.

Death count

The virus wiped out about 95% of the continent's indigenous population over a century. Mexico went from a pre-conquest population of 11 million to just 1 million.

Number of countries affected by the disease

It had a global impact throughout history. It affected numerous countries, including China, Korea, India, Spain, Japan, and Australia.

When did this pandemic end?

This pandemic died out in the 18th century. In fact, it was the first virus pandemic to be ended by a vaccine.

WHO announced a complete eradication of this disease in 1980.

4. Black Death

Credited with the introduction of “quarantine,” the Black Death was a pandemic of the bubonic plague. Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian poet, described that its victims were covered in black boils that oozed pus and blood. Moreover, those that survived remained gravely ill.

Overview

History

How did it start?

It was first reported in Europe when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at Messina’s Sicilian port. However, people at the docks were met with a horrifying surprise when they saw most sailors aboard these ships were dead.

How did it originate?

An infection by Yersinia pestis caused this disease. It is believed that the plague originated over 2,000 years ago in Asia and spread through trading ships. However, recent studies suggest that the pathogen responsible for this disease may have already existed in Europe as early as 3000 BC.

When did it start?

Black Death hit Europe in 1347.

Duration

It lasted for about 6 years.

Affected count

The disease affected millions of people across the Afro-Eurasia region.

Death count

Estimates indicate that between 1347 to 1351, this plague killed over 20 million people in Europe – almost one-third of the continent’s population.

Number of countries affected by the disease

It affected several countries in the Afro-Eurasia region, like France, Italy, Tunisia, Norway, and England.

When did this pandemic end?

This plague was eradicated in 1353.

One of the worst pandemics in human history, this plague never actually ended and continues to reappear periodically even today. Thousands of cases are recorded each year, most commonly in Africa (according to WHO). Although modern sanitation and public-health practices have significantly mitigated its impact, there are still about 1,000 - 3,000 cases each year.

5. Cholera

Another one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, this disease had been around for centuries, it came to prominence when a lethal outbreak tore through India, resulting in the first cholera pandemic. Its early symptoms included vomiting, diarrhoea, leg cramps, septic shock, and dehydration.

Overview

History

How did it start?

The cholera pandemic emerged from India’s Ganges Delta with an outbreak in Jessore. It spread globally through travel and trade.

How did it originate?

Cholera is caused by a bacterium named Vibrio cholerae that typically lives in water. This mysterious disease lurked in India’s contaminated rice and killed its victims within days.

When did it start?

This disease broke out in 1817.

Duration

It lasted for 6 years.

Affected count

This disease swept across numerous countries in Asia and Europe, the combined population of which stood at hundreds of millions.

Death count

This pandemic’s death count remains unknown. However, its estimated death counts in various countries are as following: India: approximately 1.25 million per year, Iraq: 18,000 in a month, Bangkok: 30,000, Indonesia: 1,00,000, Korea: 1,00,000

Number of countries affected by the disease

This disease initially spread from its epicentre to other Asian countries and the African coast. It first hit modern-day Myanmar and Sri Lanka through European trade routes. Then, between 1820-22, it had spread to Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, and China. Cholera began spreading beyond Asia in 1821 via British troops travelling from India to the Persian Gulf. The disease eventually reached the European territory and made its way to modern-day Syria, Turkey, and Southern Russia.

When did this pandemic end?

This pandemic died out in 1823 owing to a severe winter that most likely killed the bacteria.

However, cholera remains a persistent killer to this day, with several devastating outbreaks in recent years.

6. The Great Plague of London

It is the worst outbreak of plague in the history of England. This epidemic was known as the “great” plague as it was the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in the country.

Overview

History

How did it start?

This plague seized London as Black Death resurfaced in the city. Animals carried the disease-causing fleas across the city.

How did it originate?

This disease originated in Yersinia pestis – the bacterium associated with other plague outbreaks.

When did it start?

It took place in 1665.

Duration

This epidemic ravaged London for a year.

Affected count

It affected the entire city of London, the estimated population of which at the time was 4,60,000.

Death count

One of the worst pandemics in human history, it killed 1,00,000 London residents, about 15% of the city’s population.

Number of countries affected by the disease

This disease was confined to England’s capital city.

When did this pandemic end?

After reaching its peak in September 1665, deaths began to decline and the disease disappeared by September 1666.

During the plague, all public entertainment was banned, and victims remained in quarantine. As rats, dogs, and cats were the primary carriers of this disease, it led to the massacre of thousands of these animals.

And those were six of the deadliest pandemics in history.

Parting thoughts 

After the Covid-19 pandemic hit the planet in 2019, the global population had a common question in mind – when will it end? Unfortunately, this question remains unanswered at the moment as we are still sailing through the affliction. However, given that the worst pandemics in history ultimately came to an end, we can be hopeful that this adversity will cease as well.

And, like the preceding pandemics, this one, too, shall pass.

Frequently Asked Questions