Pandemics through history

Amy Fabian (11 AM Micro) must have heard about my other course that I’ve been teaching this semester, BIO216 Unseen Life on Earth. The textbook in Unseen Life is Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World, by Irwin Sherman (2007 ASM Press, available from here). Here is Amy’s summary:

Since we’re at the end of the semester in Microbiology and we’re studying viruses and disease, I thought it would be fitting to have a look through the history of the World’s Epic Disasters of Disease:

  1. The Great Influenza—1918-1919:  Several Epidemiologists term this ‘the deadliest plague in history’. The Great Influenza killed an estimated 100 million people in a period of 6 months.  This strain of the flu had a wide area of attack, just like it does now, because it infected not only the very young or very old but also accounted for infection amongst 8-10% of young adults living during these years.  It was believed to have started in Haskell, Kansas and transmitted via American Soldiers who fought in WWI that were traveling from base to base within the States.  Memories of The Great Influenza outbreak were behind widespread panic about the outbreak in the 1970’s of the Swine Flu and the SAR’s outbreak in the early 2000s.
  2. The Black Death—1300-1400 and on into the 1700’s:  Termed the “Bubonic Plague”, 1/3 of the population in Europe were infected and killed as a result of this disease.  1/3 of the population in Europe at that time accounted for a little more than over 34 million people.  Worldwide it killed about 100 million people, but it’s not considered the deadliest plague in history because it killed those 100 million victims over a period of 200 years,  not a period of 6 months like The Great Influenza did.  Back in the time of The Black Death, scientists thought it was caused by bacterium Y.pestis, although modern research has scientists laying the blame on an Ebola-like virus or Anthrax.
  3. Malaria— The first recorded treatment dates back to the 1600’s.  Epidemiologists call this disease the “Greatest Killer of Humans in History”.  The WHO estimates that malaria kills 2.7 people a year, 2800 children a day.  This disease is entirely preventable with the use of DDT.  After the pesticide DDT was introduced, malaria was all but eradicated.  The DDT pesticide has since been banned, however, and as a result, malaria has made an unfortunate comeback into many third world populations.
  4. AIDS—1981-present:  Epidemiologists call HIV/AIDS one of the “Worst Plagues of All-Time”.  Like malaria, HIV/AIDS is entirely preventable, because we know for a fact that it’s transmitted via known human behaviors (unprotected sex and IV drug users sharing needles) and unfortunate human accidents (being pricked by a contaminated needle in a health care setting).  25 million people have perished since HIV/AIDS was first recognized clinically in 1981.
  5. The Common Flu—“Twice the killer as AIDS.”  WHO estimates that AIDS kills about 15 million people a year and that the Common Flu kills about 36,000 people a year.
  6. First Cholera Pandemic—1817-1823:  The first Cholera pandemic started in 1817 and lasted for a total of 6 years.  Cholera is spread through contaminated food and drinking water.  It is believed that infected rice initially began the outbreak and scientists believe it is caused by the bacteria Vibrio cholera.
  7. The Worst Outbreak of All Time —1492-1900:  The population of the America’s in the pre-Columbian era was 75 million people.  During the 1900 census of the Americas, 237,000 people remained.  Various diseases were attributed to this drop, with Smallpox being chief amongst them.  **What other diseases during this time period (besides Smallpox) could have contributed to the great decline in the population of the pre-Columbian Americas?**

About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on April 27, 2012, in A bit 'o history, Guest Post. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Prof. Singleton’s other diseases from the textbook are:

    • Hemophila & porphyria
    • Irish Potato Blight
    • Yellow Fever
    • Tuberculosis
    • Syphilis
  2. I am skeptical of the theory regarding the Black Death, and an Ebola-like virus as its cause. First, historical accounts of the signs and symptoms for patients match very well the signs and symptoms attributable to Yersinia pestis. Second, although Ebola virus produces very horrific disease in people, and spreads very quickly, epidemics on their own tend to subside very quickly, because of the high level of virulence–the epidemic runs out of “fuel” to allow it to continue to spread very rapidly.

    A quick search through Pubmed was unable to turn up an peer reviewed research articles, so it appears to be a hypothesis with circumstantial evidence to back it up, and only a minority of infectious disease specialists who might support it. Still, that is exactly the situation where we were in the 1980s with the etiologic agents of spongiform encephalopathies and gastric ulcers, so new research might in the end support that proposal.

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