Throughout history, there have been a number of pandemics of diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis. Let’s find out the six worst pandemics and epidemics humans have faced in the past.
- Plague of Athens (429BCE – 426 BCE) Deaths: 75,000–100,000
The Plague of Athens was an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. The plague killed an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 people and is believed to have entered Athens main city through Piraeus, the city’s port and sole source of food and supplies. Much of the eastern Mediterranean also saw an out break of the disease, albeit with less impact.
The plague was an unforeseen event that resulted in one of the largest recorded loss of life in ancient Greece as well as a breakdown of Athenian society. The balance of power between citizens had changed due to many of the rich dying and their fortunes being inherited by remaining relatives of the lower class. According to Thucydides, those who had become ill and survived were the most sympathetic to others suffering, believing that they can no longer succumb to any illness a number of survivors offered to assist with the remaining sick. It had also contributed to Athens’ overall loss of power and ability to expand.
- The Black Death ( 1331 –1353 AD) Deaths: 75–200 million (10–60% of European population)
The Black Death, also known as the Pestilence and the Plague, was the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, resulting in the deaths of up to 75-200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351. The Black Death was the second plague pandemic recorded, after the Plague of Justinian. The plague created religious, social, and economic upheavals, with profound effects on the course of European history.
- Antonine Plague ( 165- 190 AD) Deaths: 5–10 million
The Antonine Plague of 165 to 180 AD, also known as the Plague of Galen, was an ancient pandemic brought to the Roman Empire by troops who were returning from campaigns in the Near East. Scholars have suspected it to have been either smallpox or measles, but the true cause remains undetermined. The epidemic may have claimed the life of a Roman emperor, Lucius Verus, who died in 169 and was the co-regent of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, whose family name, Antoninus, has become associated with the epidemic. The disease broke out again nine years later, according to the Roman historian Dio Cassius (155–235), and caused up to 2,000 deaths a day in Rome, one quarter of those who were affected, which gives the disease a mortality rate of about 25%. The total deaths have been estimated at 5 million, and the disease killed as much as one third of the population in some areas and devastated the Roman army.
- Japanese smallpox epidemic (735 -737 AD) Deaths: 2 million (Approx. 1⁄3 of entire Japanese population)
The 735–737 Japanese smallpox epidemic was a major smallpox epidemic that afflicted much of Japan. Killing approximately 1/3 of the entire Japanese population, the epidemic had significant social, economic, and religious repercussions throughout the country.
A few decades prior to the outbreak, Japanese court officials had adopted the Chinese policy of reporting disease outbreaks among the general population. This recording practice greatly facilitated the identification of smallpox as the disease that afflicted Japan during the years 735-737.
Increased contact between Japan and the Asian mainland had led to more frequent and serious outbreaks of infectious diseases. The smallpox epidemic of 735-737 was recorded as having taken hold around 735’s month of August in the city of Dazaifu, Fukuoka in northern Kyushu, where the infection had ostensibly been carried by a Japanese fisherman who had contracted the illness after being stranded on the Korean peninsula. The disease spread rapidly throughout northern Kyushu that year, and persisted into the next. By 736, many land tenants in Kyushu were either dying or forsaking their crops, leading to poor agricultural yields and ultimately famine.
- Third plague pandemic (1855 – 1960AD) Deaths: 12 million in India and China alone
The third plague pandemic was a major bubonic plague pandemic that began in Yunnan, China, in 1855 during the fifth year of the Xianfeng Emperor of the Qing dynasty. This episode of bubonic plague spread to all inhabited continents, and ultimately led to more than 12 million deaths in India and China, with about 10 million killed in India alone. According to the World Health Organization, the pandemic was considered active until 1960, when worldwide casualties dropped to 200 per year.
The name refers to this pandemic being the third major bubonic plague outbreak to affect European society. The first was the Plague of Justinian, which ravaged the Byzantine Empire and surrounding areas in 541 and 542. The second was the Black Death, which killed at least one third of Europe’s population in a series of expanding waves of infection from 1346 to 1353..
Casualty patterns indicate that waves of this late-19th-century/early-20th-century pandemic may have come from two different sources. The first was primarily bubonic and was carried around the world through ocean-going trade, through transporting infected persons, rats, and cargoes harboring fleas. The second, more virulent strain, was primarily pneumonic in character with a strong person-to-person contagion. This strain was largely confined to Asia, in particular Manchuria and Mongolia.
- North American smallpox epidemic (1775 – 1782AD) Deaths: > 2,000,000
The New World of the Western Hemisphere was devastated by the 1775–1782 North American smallpox epidemic. Columbus’ first voyage to America can be attributed for bringing the smallpox virus to America and led to its spread across most of the continent of North America.
It is not known where the outbreak began, but the epidemic was not limited to the colonies on the Eastern seaboard, nor to the areas ravaged by hostilities. The outbreak spread throughout the North American continent. In 1775 it was already raging through British-occupied Boston and among the Continental Army’s invasion of Canada. During Washington’s siege of Boston the disease broke out among both Continental and British camps. Many escaped slaves who had fled to the British lines in the South likewise contracted smallpox and died. In the South, it reached Texas, and from 1778–1779, New Orleans was especially hard hit due to its densely populated urban area. By 1779 the disease had spread to Mexico and would cause the deaths of tens of thousands. At its end the epidemic had crossed the Great Plains, reaching as far west as the pacific coast, as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico, infecting virtually every part of the continent.
One of the worst tragedies of the pandemic was the massive toll it took on the indigenous population of the Americas. The disease was likely spread via the travels of the Shoshone Indian tribes. Beginning in 1780 it reached the Pueblos of the territory comprising present day New Mexico. It also showed up in the interior trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1782. It affected nearly every tribe on the continent, including the northwestern coast. It is estimated to have killed nearly 11,000 Native Americans in the Western area of present-day Washington, reducing the population from 37,000 to 26,000 in just seven years.
Source: History Archives (U.S. Government), World Health Organisation, Wikipedia