Pandemics through the eyes of History

Tales of devastating pandemics are as old as time. To give context and relatability to the situation the global community finds itself in at the moment, we take a look at historic pandemics that shook the world to a standstill over the years. The good news is that the world always survives.

The earliest recorded pandemic happened during the Peloponnesian War. After the disease passed through Libya, Ethiopia and Egypt, it crossed the Athenian walls as the Spartans laid siege. Two thirds of the population are believed to have succumbed to this pandemic. Symptoms: fever, thirst, bloody throat and tongue, red skin and lesions. The disease, suspected to have been typhoid fever, weakened the Athenians significantly and was a significant factor in their defeat by the Spartans.

11th Century: Leprosy
Leprosy did not become classified as a pandemic from the onset. The disease grew slowly, but it’s effects were eventually shattering. Though it had been around for ages, leprosy grew into a pandemic in Europe in the Middle Ages, resulting in the building of numerous leprosy-focused hospitals to accommodate the vast number of victims. This was a slow moving bacterial disease that proved fatal unless treated with antibiotics.

1350: The Black Death
This was probably the most brutal and most wide-spread of all the pandemics. It is said to have been carried into Europe through infected persons travelling through the port of Messina entering through Sicily in 1347 A.D. It spread throughout Europe rapidly. Dead bodies became so common that many remained rotting on the ground and created a constant stench in cities.

1817: First Cholera Pandemic
The first of seven cholera pandemics over the next 150 years, this wave of the small intestine infection originated in Russia, where one million people died. Spreading through faeces-infected water and food, the bacterium was passed along to British soldiers who brought it to India, where millions more died. The reach of the British Empire and its navy spread cholera to Spain, Africa, Indonesia, China, Japan, Italy, Germany and America, where it killed 150,000 people. A vaccine was formulated in 1885, but pandemics continued.

1918 The Spanish Flu
Also known as the Avian Influenza due to the fact that it was caused by contact with an infected bird. This pandemic resulted in over 50 million deaths across the world. The 1918 Spanish flu was first observed in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia before swiftly spreading around the world. At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer flu strain. The flu disappeared in the summer of 1919, when most of the infected persons had either developed immunities or died.

1981: HIV/AIDS
HIV was first identified in 1981 as AIDS. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is a disease that destroys a person’s immune system, resulting in eventual death by diseases that the body would usually fight off. Those infected by the HIV virus encounter fever, headache, and enlarged lymph nodes upon infection. When symptoms subside, carriers become highly infectious through blood and genital fluid, and the disease destroys T-cells.

It is believed to have developed from a chimpanzee virus from West Africa in the 1920s. The disease spreads through certain body fluids. Treatments have been developed to slow the progress of the disease, but 35 million people worldwide have died of AIDS since its discovery, and a cure is yet to be found.

2003: SARS
First identified in 2003 after several months of cases, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is believed to have possibly started with bats, spread to cats and then to humans in China, followed by 26 other countries, infecting 8,096 people, with 774 deaths. SARS is characterised by respiratory problems, dry cough, fever and head and body aches and is spread through respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes.

2019 COVID-19
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization announced that the Covid-19 virus was officially a pandemic after ravaging 114 countries in three months infecting over 118,000 people.

Covid-19 is caused by a novel coronavirus - a new coronavirus strain that has not been previously found in people. Symptoms include respiratory problems, fever and cough, and can lead to pneumonia and death. Like SARS, it is spread through droplets from sneezes.

Without a vaccine available, the virus spread beyond Chinese borders and by mid-March, it had spread globally to more than 163 countries. On February 11, the infection was officially christened Covid-19.