How pandemics affected human society throughout history?

Pandemics have shaped the course of world history over the past 2,000 years. See below the overview of pandemics that changed the course of history and our manners.

Plague, Cholera, the Spanish flu and more. These 10 pandemics have changed human societies

Can this help us to put the current crisis into perspective? The COVID-19 epidemic is far from being a first in history. Let’s take a look at the pandemics that have struck mankind since antiquity, constantly altering human society.

Pandemics in history

The history of the Spanish flu, named the “mother” of all pandemics, which struck during the last months of the First World War, is currently stirring up social networks. The comparison with the coronavirus, which is spreading worldwide, stops there.

The 1918 influenza pandemic, affected between a third and a half of the world’s population, killed an estimated 20, 50 or even 100 million people. The deadliest global pandemic in history is not the first of them. The latter dates back to antiquity, to the fifth century.

Epidemic or pandemic, what’s the difference?

An epidemic (from the Greek “epi”, meaning above, and “demos”, people) is the rapid spread of an infectious disease to a large number of people. If it remains contained within a well-defined area of the globe, it is not called a pandemic. For diseases affecting groups of animals, the exact term is epizootic.

The word pandemic (from the Greek “pan”, which means all) applies when a pandemic is spread to the population of an entire continent or even the whole world. Only the WHO can declare a pandemic.

The first recorded pandemic in history, the plague of Athens

This is likely the first recorded pandemic in history. In the 5th century B.C., Greek civilization, with Athens at the forefront, was flourishing. Between 430 and 426 B.C., a wave of typhoid fever struck the cradle of democracy. It is said to have swept away one-third of the city’s population of about 200,000.

Reported and described by Thucydides, the plague of Athens most likely originated in the north of Africa; first in Ethiopia, then Egypt and Libya, the disease appeared in Athens at the time of the siege of the city by Sparta, during the Peloponnesian War. The plague marked the beginning of the decline of the Athenian Golden Age.

The Antonine plague, 165 -180 AD

This is one of the first large, well-documented epidemics, and certainly the first smallpox epidemic in the West. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Empire was plagued by a dreadful and prolonged epidemic, the Antonine plague or plague of Galen.

It began in late 165 or early 166, in Mesopotamia, during the The Roman–Parthian War and reached Rome in less than a year.

The pandemic lasted at least until the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, and probably during the first part of the reign of Commodus. According to recent estimates, it have considerably reduced the Roman population, causing nearly 10 million deaths between 166 and 189.

The Plague of Justinian, 541-542 AD

Justinian’s plague, also known as Yersinia pestis in Latin, is the first known plague pandemic (previous “plagues” remain uncertain as to their exact nature). Between the 6th and 8th centuries, Europe and Asia were prey to the bubonic plague.

The great power of the time was the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire, led by Emperor Justinian, one of the leading figures of late antiquity. The pandemic reached its peak in the second half of the 6th century, but remained present for another two hundred years, arriving in waves (about twenty of them).

Some historians assume that this epidemic originated in Egypt. Others, maintain it came from Central Asia and spread via the Silk Road. Whatever its exact origin, it was carried by the first commercial exchanges.

Estimates of victims of the Justinian plague vary from 25 to 100 million dead. That’s a third to half of the population at the time. With 10,000 deaths a day, Constantinople had lost 40% of its population in one summer.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Eastern Roman Empire enjoyed considerable military and economic power. Its impact weakened it and prevented it from re-founding a unified Roman Empire.

The Black Death in the Middle Ages, 1347-1353

The Great Plague of the Middle Ages has remained, in the West, deeply rooted in the collective memory. In just a few years, from 1347 to 1353, this infection, a bacterium transmitted to humans via a rat flea, is estimated to have killed between 25 and 34 million people in Europe alone.

Europe which at the beginning of the pandemic was booming demographically, agronomically and economically lost 40% of its population. Once again, the spreading factors were war and trade.

The outbreak is thought to have come from India or China. Arriving on the shores of the Black Sea, Mongolian horsemen possibly had carried the bacteria with them through the Asian steppes. At Caffa (Theodosia), in Crimea, they attacked the Genoese trading posts.

Then the bacteria spread to Constantinople, Messina, Genoa, Venice and Marseille: in one year, the then prosperous port cities around the Mediterranean basin were hit one after the other. It was at this time that the concept “quarantine” was invented.

In the second half of the 19th century, the plague made its great comeback and resurfaced on the Chinese highlands. From Asia, it then spread to the Middle East, mainly around the Red Sea.

Ports were prime targets, hence the quarantine of cities, mainly ports, until the middle of the 20th century, such as Marseille in 1902. The last bubonic plague related quarantine took place in Ajaccio, Corsica, in 1945.

The Yellow Fever – 17th, 18th and early 19th century

The Yellow fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes. The term “yellow” refers to the jaundice presented by some patients.

Contrary to popular belief, the disease is thought to have originated not in Asia (a continent it never reached), but in the tropical regions of the Americas, where a major epidemic hit the Yucatan in Mexico in 1648.

Yellow fever affected Europeans in large numbers, putting a brake on the colonization process that otherwise could have been even more rapid.

The Yellow fever came in a few waves. For example, at the end of the 18th century, the disease killed 10% of the population of the city of Philadelphia. In 1821, a ship from Cuba infected Barcelona, killing 20,000 people.

The French had to deal with yellow fever quite often, since they were first exposed to the disease in French Guyana in 1763. The few survivors of the epidemic took refuge on the Devil’s Island, which for the occasion became the  Salvation’s Islands.

Yellow fever also caused a disaster in the French expeditionary force sent in 1802 to Santo Domingo to quell the native uprising led by François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture.

According to the WHO, yellow fever is still striking in South America (particularly Venezuela) and sub-Saharan Africa (Angola).

The second cholera pandemic, 1826–1837

Around 1826, Cholera morbus appeared in India, spread to Russia in 1830, causing riots there, and from there to Poland and Finland. This deadly and hitherto unknown disease reached Berlin in 1831, the British Isles in February 1832 (also causing riots) and France in March of the same year, causing panic.

In Paris, the first case of cholera was confirmed on March 26, 1832. Within six months, the cholera epidemic caused more than 100,000 deaths. Overall, the disease claimed more than a million victims in Europe.

Arriving in Quebec with Irish immigrants, in 1832, the disease killed 1,200 people in Montreal and 1,000 in the rest of the province, then spread to Ontario and Nova Scotia. Passengers brought it into the United States via Detroit and New York. The pandemic reached South America in 1833 and lasted until 1848, killing 52,000 people in two years.

Currently, the WHO estimates that there are nearly 3 million new cases of cholera each year, resulting in more than 95,000 deaths from the disease worldwide.

The Spanish flu, 1918

This is one of the most frequent searches on Wikipedia these days. The Spanish flu pandemic, which appeared at the end of the First World War, perhaps as early as 1916-1917, affected between a quarter and a third of the world’s population.

The disease, responsible for between 25 and 100 million deaths, left its mark on the collective unconscious to the point of embodying the essence of the epidemic scourge, in the same way as the plague.

The infectious agent is believed to have originated from a human strain and avian viral genes. Presumably imported from Boston by American soldiers. It was named the “Spanish flu” because Spain, not concerned by military secrecy due to its non involvement in the world conflict, was the first to mention it publicly.

The most devastating pandemic in history affected almost the entire globe. Despite a mortality rate of 2% to 4%, it caused tens of millions of deaths. Most of the victims died of microbial superinfection, which started after 4-5 days and led to death about ten days after the first flu symptoms, due to the absence of antibiotics at the time.

Among the famous victims of the terrible disease were the American President Woodrow Wilson, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the French writer Edmond Rostand, the Austrian artist Egon Schiele and the German economist and sociologist Marx Weber. The grandfather of the current American president, Donald Trump, was also among the victims.

The Asian Flu – H2N2, 1956

The influenza A virus subtype H2N2  originated in Japan and spread in Asia. This pandemic, which has struck in two virulent waves, has caused the death of about 4 million people.

The virus appeared in a southern province of China in February 1957. It took several months before it reached America (70,000 deaths in the United States) and Europe.

The Hong Kong flu, 1968 – 1970

The strain of the Asian flu has unfortunately evolved into a new deadly pandemic: the Hong Kong flu. The H3N2 flu strain originated in Hong Kong.

It first crossed Asia, then, at the end of 1968, reached the United States, and then spread to Europe at the end of 1969, killing about one million people around the world, according to the WHO.

Considered as the first pandemic of the modern era, the H3N2 strain has generated a strong international mobilization, coordinated by WHO. Effective vaccines were developed as early as November 1968.

AIDS originated in Africa in the 1920s and has been a pandemic since the 1980s

Researchers maintain that the first transmission of Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIVs), a species of retrovirus, to HIV in humans that lead to the global pandemic occurred in 1920 in Kinshasa. The capital and largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On June 5, 1981, the epidemiological agency in Atlanta, United States, sounded an alert. Five cases of Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP), a very rare disease, were reported in Los Angeles.

AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) was not yet used to describe this unexplained infection, but rather gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) because it was initially identified in homosexuals.

The HIV-1 virus responsible for AIDS was identified on May 20, 1983 by the team of the viral oncology unit at the Pasteur Institute, headed by Professor Luc Montagnier. It is a retrovirus present throughout the world.

The AIDS pandemic began in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, between 1920 and 1950 as a result of a combination of factors, including rapid urbanization, the construction of railways in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then the Belgian Congo) and sex trade, spread across the rapidly globalizing world.

These are the findings of researchers who have traced the path of the HIV infection, that has claimed more than 36 million lives, according to a study published in Science in 2014.

Virologists already knew that this retrovirus has been transmitted from monkeys to humans at least thirteen times, but only one of these transmissions is responsible for the human pandemic that has resulted in approximately 38 million people across the globe with HIV in 2018, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa.


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