This week I am going to be talking about the history of viruses and pan/endemics in the world (because this obviously isn’t the first one). Throughout our history as human beings we have encountered a lot, and that’s why we had history classes. It’s essential to be able to look back on past experiences of our ancestors, and be able to try and predict what might happen in our future. I wasn’t expecting this research to calm me down during this historical time of panic and hoarding; however, I feel more calm now than I ever have since this chaos first started. So to help ease some of the anxiety, here’s a quick history of how many pandemics humanity has encountered, and survived through (and this isn’t even all of them).
The Antonine Plague
Death Toll: 5 million
The Antonine Plague was one of the first, and worst, plagues ever recorded. It began in 165 CE and ran all the way until 180 CE. Lucius Verus, the leader of Rome was leading his army through western Asia, and after their victory, they brought back an uninvited guest. “As the army marched back to Rome, the disease manifested and spread everywhere they went, first in Asia Minor, then Greece, and finally into Italy itself.” Some, back then, said that the disease came as a curse from Verus “open[ing] a closed tomb,” which is quite similar to some cults today claiming that the Coronavirus is a sign of the end of days. Symptoms included “pustules or boils” as well as “fever, diarrhea, vomiting, thirstiness, swollen throat, and coughing.” The symptoms lasted for about two weeks, and was not fatal in everyone who contracted it. From what I read, there were two distinct outbreaks, in the first one “there were fatalities of up to 2,000 people per day” and the second, “upwards of 5,000 per day.”
Plague of Justinian
Death Toll: 30-50 million
The Plague of Justinian ravaged the old world from 541-542 CE. This virus originated in China and was carried overseas by ships delivering goods to Africa. “The means of transmission of the plague was the black rat.” Rats were plentiful, and so was warfare, hunger, and famine. All of this combined to create the perfect storm for the plague to erupt throughout the Byzantine Empire. Just like the citizen’s morale, immune systems were beaten down, and the rats from the trade ships brought over the Bubonic, Penumonic, and Septicimic plague, whose symptoms included: “delusions, nightmares, fevers and swellings in the groin, armpits, and behind their ears.” Overall the disease, coupled with the sub-par leadership of Emperor Justinian, “killed between 30 and 50 million people—about half the world’s population at that time…“
Death Toll: 200 million
The Black Death was actually the same strain of virus that caused the Plague of Justinian. The Black Death ran from 1347-1351, and “began with an attack that the Mongols launched on the Italian merchants’ last trading station in the region.” With this occurrence of the bubonic plague, rats would initially be infected with the disease, which would then pass onto their fleas. The disease would then kill off the rats, and the fleas would turn to humans as their main food source; this is where the boils would come from, “the contagion drains to a lymph node that consequently swells to form a painful bubo.” This suffering amounted to “estimates that 50-60% of the population of Europe died during the Black Death.” Though this plague ravaged the old world, it fueled the development of medicine in our modern civilization.
Death Toll: 1 million+
Cholera is an epidemic that is more familiar because it happened much more recently than all the diseases aforementioned. I read that there were seven worldwide cholera pandemics from 1817-1923; and the disease was spread, again, by travelers on trade routes throughout the world, bringing the disease from India to the rest of the world. Cholera primarily affects the digestive system, and “upon onset, causes severe diarrhea and sometimes vomiting, both leading to dehydration that can cause death in a matter of hours.” The deaths totaled to be more than a million people, roughly over a 106 year span. The deaths were seen to spike during peaks of each individual outbreak, “killing as many as 7,000 people in 18 days in Paris in March and April of 1832.” Cholera was treatable at this point in human history, simply through providing the victim with consistent fluids, and our knowledge of bacteria, viruses, and medicine has only gotten better through the years.
Death Toll: 25-35 million +
HIV/Aids originally existed in the chimp population as SIV, a relative of HIV. In the 1920’s, these chimps were “being hunted and eaten by people living in the area,” and this caused the virus to transfer from chimps to humans, initiating the beginning of the Aids epidemic. The stages of HIV/Aids last for the entirety of your life, and it can be contracted through ingestion or contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. The virus slowly degrades the immune system of the host, so the early stages are “often compared to the flu.” If the disease goes untreated, then the immune system of the host will become so weak that they would be unable to resist any other viruses or bacteria that they come in contact with, making it extremely difficult to ever feel fully healthy. This late into the disease, the symptoms that are more common include: “Weight loss, diarrhea, fever, a cough that won’t go away, night sweats, [and] mouth and skin problems.” According to Unaids, “In 2018, around 770 000 [570 000–1.1 million] people died from AIDS-related illnesses worldwide…” Also, through much research and time dedicated to this disease by doctors worldwide, I was happy to read that, “AIDS-related deaths have been reduced by more than 56% since the peak in 2004.“
Death Toll: 45 thousand+
The disease we know today as the coronavirus made its first serious appearance “with the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China” (This is coronavirus’ cousin). On December 31, 2019 the Covid-19 strain originally broke out in China, and there are two main theories as to how it came to be in the human population. One theory is similar to the history of HIV/Aids, where the virus originally lived in “bats or pangolins” and then evolved to live in humans when those animals were eaten by humans. Another theory is “that the new coronavirus crossed from animals into humans before it became capable of causing human disease,” and then over time, it gained the ability to infect and cause the disease in humans. The symptoms include: “fever, tiredness, and dry cough…aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea.” So far scientists and statisticians have estimated that one in every six people who get Covid-19 have difficulty breathing and become seriously ill, which would explain why even though there are currently over 900,000 cases, there has only been just over 45,000 deaths. (See the live Coronavirus update website here.)