The terms ‘pandemic’ and ‘epidemic’ have often been used interchangeably. But the two are different from each other, according to scientists and researchers worldwide. While an epidemic refers to the spread of a disease in a limited geographical area or community, a pandemic is an epidemic spread over multiple regions, sometimes countries and continents. In other words, the pandemic is a global epidemic that spreads to multiple continents rapidly, thus affecting a large section of the world population.
From Leprosy, smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid, yellow fever to the most recent COVID-19, we have seen an array of global pandemics in the past 100-200 years. It won’t be wrong to say that we have been living and surviving such pandemics since time immemorial. Life has given us numerous chances to take care of ourselves and survive through all adversities.
The list of the worst pandemics in world history are as follows.
- The Black Death (The middle of 1300s)
This was, by far, one of the deadliest pandemics that the world has ever seen. It was probably named after the Black Sea, where 12 ships arrived in Europe at the Sicilian Port, Messina in October 1347 and everyone got shocked to find most of the sailors dead. The ones, who were alive, were suffering from a grave illness with pus and blood coming out of the boils on their bodies.
In the next few years, Black Death ravaged all of Europe, killing more than 20 million people. However, the plague pounced on Asia before the Sicilian Port incident in 1340. India, Syria, China, Egypt, Persia and other Asian countries suffered the brunt of it for many years. It mainly spread through trading ships. The strain of bacteria (Yersinia pestis) that caused the pandemic was transmitted through rodents mainly, and there were plenty of them on the ships.
- The Spanish Flu (1918)
Also known as the 1918 influenza pandemic, its severity and spread are being compared with the COVID-19 pandemic by many health experts today. It was caused by an H1N1 virus, which probably originated in the avian genes. Although it’s still unclear where the flu first started, the name Spanish Flu was a result of the Spanish newspapers posting updates about the disease without any restrictions, which were imposed on free media in the other countries.
According to some rough estimates, about 500 million people were affected by this disease in the world. Among them, 50 million people died and 6.7 million deaths occurred in the US itself. The mortality rate was higher in the children above 5 years, and in adults, the more vulnerable age groups were 20-40 and above 65. As there was no medication or vaccine to bring the virus under control, isolation of the infected, quarantine, disinfectants and limitations on public gatherings were enforced. People also created innovative masks to protect themselves when they stepped outside for work or recreation.
- The Cholera Pandemic (1817-2016)
There have been approximately seven Cholera outbreaks in history, each of which created terror among the global population. It won’t be wrong to say that they are the world’s worst pandemics in history and each time they killed millions of people worldwide, especially in Asia. The first one originated in Bengal during the British colonial rule and lasted 7 years from 1819 to 1824. The second wave occurred in 1826 and lasted more than 10 years, affecting many parts of Europe and North America due to an increase in trade movements, migration of soldiers and global transportation.
The third one occurred in 1846 in North Africa and spread to South America, especially Brazil, which was highly affected by it. The fourth cholera pandemic spread from India to Naples and Spain, and the fifth one from India to Europe, South America and other Asian countries. The sixth wave also originated in India but was less effective, as the strain of bacteria that caused it was being studied extensively then. The last Cholera pandemic occurred in Indonesia with the emergence of a new strain of the bacteria that exists even today.
- The Asian Flu (1957)
This one originated in East Asia somewhere in 1957, according to the reports by CDC. The H2N2 virus that caused the pandemic was first found in Singapore, from where it spread to Hong Kong and the coastal cities of the US. It caused the death of approximately 2 million people and about 116,000 of these deaths were in the US alone.
After a vaccine was introduced, the rate of the pandemic decreased, but there was a second wave next year, and the virus joined its peers in the category of seasonal flu. The symptoms of this flu are influenza-like e.g. cold shivers, body aches, weakness, loss of appetite, sore throat and breathing issues. Recovery would take weeks and health complications like pneumonia, heart failures and seizures caused death in the older and other vulnerable populations.
- The Hong Kong Flu (1968)
This was caused by the Influenza A H3N2 virus which had two genes of the avian influenza A virus and the N2 neuraminidase from the 1957 H2N2 virus. Also known as the Hong Kong flu, as it originated in Hong Kong on 13th July 1968, as per the records, the virus affected millions of people in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, Philippines, India, parts of Europe and the US and Northern Australia, killing about 4 million people worldwide.
Numerous other viral and bacterial diseases have erupted in different regions of the world, like the Bubonic Plague, which ravaged the Mediterranean port cities in the years 541 and 542 AD, the Antonine Plague in 165 AD, and the latest, the Ebola outbreak, which terrorized the African countries and parts of Asia and the USA in the years 2014-2016. However, the aforementioned five will always be recalled for references, whenever people talk about the worst pandemics in the world history that took the lives of millions globally. But humanity managed to survive and it’s surviving even today. This is what we should all remember in the present situation and pray for the crisis to be over soon.