February 6, 2016

9 Most Insane Epidemics in Human History

In the modern world the issue of health care—who gets it, how, and who pays—is always front and center on the political agenda, no matter what country you’re in. And though all the debate can get a little tedious at times, it is not without reason that our culture worries so much about this issue. After all, human history is filled with innumerable stories of devastating epidemics. So when you really stop and think about the suffering we humans have had to endure as the result of brutal diseases—and all just because we live in close proximity to each other—it’s no wonder we argue with each other until blue-in-the-face about whether Obamacare puts the government between you and your doctors or protects the universal right of each citizen to adequate medical treatment. It’s just based on a rational fear that stems from our knowledge of historical events. Events like these: the 9 Most Insane Epidemics in Human History.

9. 19th Century Cholera Pandemics

Cholera is a bacterial disease of the small intestine that is transmitted through the consumption of contaminated food and water. Symptoms of which include extreme diarrhoea and vomiting. The First Cholera Pandemic began in 1817 and lasted until 1824. It originated in Calcutta, India, and spread across the continent to China in the East and the Caspian Sea in the West. This was quickly followed by “The 2nd Cholera Pandemic” from 1829–1851, which was in turn followed by “The 3rd Cholera Pandemic” from 1852–1860 and “The 4th Cholera Pandemic” from 1863–1879. So in other words, cholera was a big problem in during the 1800s. We do not know exactly how many people were killed during these pandemics, since record keeping wasn’t all that accurate, but we do know that the British recorded 100,000 deaths just among their troops during the first pandemic. When you realize that there were probably no more than 200,000 troops there at the time, that means the death rate was absolutely staggering.

8. Antonine Plague

The Antonine Plague was a smallpox epidemic which occurred in ancient Rome, between 165–180 AD. During this fifteen year period the Roman Empire was still at height of its power and territorial control. Thus, once the disease took hold, it spread throughout the majority of Europe. Contemporary historians reported as many as 2,200 deaths per day in the city of Rome, or about a 25% mortality rate. This leads historians to suspect that as many as 5 million people may have died. We know for sure that two of these possible 5 million were Roman Emperors—Lucius Veras in 169 AD, and philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius Antonius in 180 AD.

7. World War I Typhus Pandemic

As if 16 million war deaths wasn’t bad enough, the first World War also gave rise to history’s worst Typhus pandemic. Typhus is a bacterial disease transmitted by lice, the symptoms of which include just about everything that doesn’t feel good. During the war (1914–1918), when soldiers shared close quarters in the trenches for an unprecedented length of time, typhus spread rapidly across Europe and is believed to have claimed as many as 9 million lives. At least 3 million died in Russia, and probably another 3 million died in Romania and Poland.

6. The Third Pandemic

Most people probably think “plague” is synonymous with “epidemic,” and it is—just not always. Plague is also a specific disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, or Y. pestis for short. There are three types of plague: pneumonic, septicemic, and bubonic. The most famous of these is bubonic plague, which is trasmitted from rats to humans by fleas and is characterized by swollen glands and lesions in the armpit and groin region. “The Third Pandemic” was an instance of the plague which began in China in 1855 and maintained epidemic proportions until 1959, when the rate of death dropped to below 200 per year. In total, an astounding 12 million people died from bubonic plague during this time.


Sadly, here at #5 we have a pandemic that is still ongoing. Since Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first recognized back in 1981, it has led to the deaths of over 25 million people. Of course, we say AIDS has “led to the death” because AIDS itself is not a disease that kills; rather, it is a disease that weakens the immune system so that other infections (known as OIs, or Opportunistic Infections) can kill. What is especially tragic about this pandemic is that, since it is not an airborne disease, it is almost entirely preventable. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, can only be transmitted through direct contact of a mucous membrane or bloodstream with a bodily fluid (generally anything except tears and saliva) containing HIV.

4. Smallpox in The New World

When Europeans started arriving en massein the New World during the 15th century, it is estimated that there were between 75 and 100 million native inhabitants living in North and South America. Over the course of a couple centuries, epidemic diseases that made the trip from Europe reduced the the number of native inhabitant to somewhere between 5 and 10 million. Chief among these diseases was smallpox. Though some groups of Native Americans had built and lived in cities, they had not lived in them as long as Europeans had. This meant they had not incubated as many communicable diseases and, consequently, had less robust immune systems. When Europeans arrived with their centuries-old infections, the native inhabitants of the New World were no match. A conservative estimate would put the death toll at no fewer than 50 million, though it could be as high as 80 million. Talk about a pandemic that changed history.

3. Plague of Justinian

The Plague of Justinian is another instance of a plague that is actually the plague. It occurred in the Eastern Roman Empire from 541-542 AD, and is named for the unlucky emperor who happened to be ruler at the time. By all accounts, this is simply one of the most tragic pandemics in human history. Though the Roman Empire had been split in two for a couple centuries by this point, there was still extensive trading all throughout Europe and of course with both the Near- and Far-East. So in other words, this outbreak of bubonic plague was was easily transmitted throughout the known world. Of course, we’ll never know just how man people died. However, modern historians estimate that worldwide, between 541 and 700 AD, there may have been as many as 100 million deaths.

2. The Black Death

It has long been believed that the Black Death was the result of the plague, and this is the view of most historians and forensic scientists today. The disease ravaged Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia, including India and China. In fact, the epidemic so prominent in European history textbooks is actually believed to have started in China, making its way to Europe via the “silk road” trade route. Though we can not be completely accurate, historians estimate that 40–60% of Europe’s total population was killed by the plague between 1347 and 1350. That would be somewhere in the ballpark of 30–50 million people. Moreover, it is believe that the entire world population went from about 450 million to between 350 and 375 million by the year 1400. That is an estimated 75–100 million deaths in about a half century.

1. 1918 Flu Pandemic

What makes this the most horrific pandemic in human history is not necessarily the number of deaths, though that number is almost incomprehensible. No, this pandemic comes in at #1 because it did so much damage in so little time. In just a few months, this super-strain of H1N1 avian influenza virus killed 20 million people. After about a year, the death toll worldwide is believed to be about 75 MILLION. That’s 75 million deaths in one year, give or take six months. Though other pandemics may have killed more people, certainly none has killed them quicker that the “Spanish Flu” of 1918. When you combine this pandemic with the death toll from the concurrent Typhus Pandemic (9 million) and the death toll from World War I (17 million), you have a pretty good case for declaring 1914–1918 (100 million deaths) the worst four years in human history.