Epidemics made our civilization what it is today, and new outbreaks like Ebola could completely change our world. Studying the history of these plagues can give us a sense of a pandemic’s power – and help us prepare for future outbreaks.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – a philanthropy devoted to public health – listed the five deadliest pandemics in history accompanied by eye-opening and frightening statistics. Following is the list:
1. The Black Death, 1347 to 1351. This outbreak of the bubonic plague was the worst in human history and killed between 75 million and 200 million people at a time when the world’s population was only 450 million. Historians are unsure about the number of dead but they do believe that half the population of Europe died within four years.
The disease that caused the Black Death is still with us. In July, Chinese authorities quarantined the city of Yumen after a local farmer died of the plague, The Guardian reported. During the same week four people were diagnosed with bubonic plague in Colorado.
2. The Spanish Flu or “La Grippe.” This deadly strain of influenza killed between 50 and 100 million in 1918 and 1919 during World War I. It actually killed more people than World War I itself (37 million). The Spanish Flu killed about 675,000 people in the United States — 10 times the number of US soldiers killed in World War I. Some scientists have compared La Grippe to recent influenza outbreaks. One-third of the world’s population caught it.
Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced in June that they had succeeded in using genetic engineering to create a strain of influenza similar to that which caused the Spanish Flu. It is easy to see why Lord May, the former chief scientific advisor to the British government, called the work “crazy and exceedingly dangerous.”
3. HIV/AIDS. Around 60 million people have been infected with AIDS since it was first reported in 1981. Nearly half of them – that is, 25 million — have died of AIDS. Another 35.3 million are living with HIV. There is no cure for AIDS, nor is there a vaccine that protects against it, although drugs can control the effects of the disease and dramatically improve the health of those who have it.
Professor Jeremy Farrar, one of the world’s leading authorities on infectious diseases, believes it is only a matter of time before a new strain of AIDS that is resistant to drugs appears.
4. The Plague of Justinian, 541 A.D. This outbreak of the bubonic plague had a huge impact on history, leaving 25 million dead. Those killed included nearly half the population of Constantinople (in modern-day Istanbul), where 5,000 people a day died.
This plague greatly changed history by gravely weakening the Roman Empire, and the Emperor Justinian had to call off his plans to reconquer Europe. It may have also left the Empire too weak to defend Syria, Egypt and Palestine (Israel) from the Arabs in the next century.
5. The Antonine Plague, 165-180 AD. This outbreak of smallpox gravely weakened the Roman Empire. It killed 5 million people, including two emperors and 2,000 people a day in Rome at one point. The plague probably didn’t hasten the collapse of the Roman Empire but it may have helped promote the spread of Christianity by destroying faith in the older pagan religions.
They Live On In Laboratories
Today, smallpox itself has been eradicated, the last known case having been in Somalia in 1977. Yet the virus that caused it lives on in laboratories around the world.
Several vials of smallpox were discovered at a National Institute of Health laboratory in Maryland in July. The active virus was moved to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. There are only two official storage sites for smallpox in the world — the CDC in Atlanta and the State Research of Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk, Russia.
US intelligence agencies believe that two other nations — France and North Korea — have samples of the smallpox virus. There were unconfirmed reports that there was a sample of smallpox in Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein. It is not known what happened to that smallpox or if it even existed. The terrorist army ISIS now controls larges areas of Iraq. Other terrorists, including Osama Bin Laden, expressed interest in using smallpox as weapon.
Pandemics have changed history in the past and they could change it again in the future. We must always be prepared for their possible spread.
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