A Brief History of Pandemics & Epidemics

An epidemic is a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community or country during a specified period. When an epidemic spreads beyond those borders it becomes a pandemic.

Communicable diseases have existed since the dawn of man, but the more humans became civilized and traded with other civilized communities from different geographical locations the chances of epidemics becoming pandemics increased.

As we face one of the scariest and most contagious pandemics of our lifetime, let’s look back at the history of many mankind survived.

The first recorded pandemic was in 430 BC. The disease, a form of Typhoid Fever, wiped out 2/3 of the population of Athens and surrounding areas and historians state as a significant factor in Athenians defeat by the Spartans. Fast forward to 165 AD to the Antonine Plague, a form of Small Pox, that spread throughout the Roman Empire and lasted over a decade. It was then followed by 2 other historical plagues before the more famous Leprosy pandemic of the middle ages. Though Leprosy had existed for centuries as an epidemic, it was in the 11th Century that it reached pandemic status.

“The Black Death” is another famed pandemic that reached epic proportions around 1350.

A pandemic so deadly and far reaching, also known as the Bubonic Plague, The Black Death brought and end to war, economic collapse and killed 1/3 of the entire world population.

After a handful of notable pandemics between the 1400s-1800s history met one of the most famous pandemics and most comparable to COVID-19, “The Spanish Flu”. Both COVID-19 and The Spanish Flu derived from birds or similar. The Spanish Flu was first observed in Europe around 1918 and quickly spread to other parts of the word. With no known treatment or cure it at the time, millions of lives were lost worldwide. It is known as one of the deadliest pandemics in history and had as many as 4 “waves” meaning as people became comfortable and felt they had overcome the pandemic it returned with a vengeance three more times before it was truly done. Like COVID-19, it bore typical flu symptoms at first but ultimately became much worse. While actions and precautions were taken, it was a time in history when people had a lesser understanding of what the safest and best practices were to prevent the spread. A later study found that measures such as banning mass gatherings and requiring people to wear face masks could’ve cut the death rate by at least 50%. Despite the massive mortality and morbidity rates of the Spanish Flu, the faded from public awareness over the decades until the arrival of AIDS became a painful reminder of the severity of infectious diseases.

AIDS, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, has not been defined as a pandemic rather than an epidemic even though it effects the entire planet to this day. Though highly transmissible, AIDS/HIV is more preventable than most diseases because it is not an airborne illness rather it spreads via bodily fluids and predominantly by the use of shared needles or unprotected sex.

In recent history, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was first identified in 2003 and is believed to be an avian borne virus that originated with bats in China similarly to COVID-19. SARS bares similar symptoms and health issues to COVID-19 and is spread the same way; respiratory droplets and surface germs. SARS, like AIDS, was looked at as an epidemic moreover a pandemic. Though SARS is highly transmissible, similar to COVID-19, it maintained a much lower fatality rate of under 10,000 and was considered eradicated in about a year following the first case. Not long before the arrival of COVID-19, another strain of SARS made headlines and many scientists believe brought about COVID-19.

Today, together, we make history. Wether we like it or not, here we are. But, we are blessed to live in a time far advanced to that of the Spanish Flu or other pandemics that took millions of lives. We have medical advancements, higher education, knowledge, experience and access to the information super highway that is the internet. Together we write a better story for the history books where we prove that using safety precautions and protective devices (such as gloves, masks and sanitizers), avoiding crowds, and following the advice of medical and science leaders we can survive this!

Sources: Encylopedia Britannica The History Channel Live Science