A history of pandemics & shape of human history

Humanity has confronted as many as 21 pandemics in history. Every time, humans have come out victorious from the health crisis. In this article, we try to trace the history of pandemics, their impact on people and the learning

The current outbreak of coronavirus is testing the ingenuity of the modern world in its efforts to contain the spread and find a cure for it. Pandemics are not new to human civilisation and date back a long way into history right upto modern times. If we look at the history of pandemics, humanity has been ravaged by outbreak of diseases with regularity. Some of these changed the course of history and at times threatened the very existence of entire civilisations. There appears to be a direct link between human civilisation as it flourished and outbreak of infectious disease. The reason attributed to it is large number of people living in close proximity to each other and to animals. Poor sanitation and nutrition too provided fertile ground for the spread of the disease. Alongside, opening up of new trade routes led to spread of novel infections far and wide that created the first global pandemics. From pre-historic days till today, if we include novel coronavirus, this is the twenty first pandemic that human civilisation is confronting. The first pandemic happened some five thousand years ago. Some virologists and archaeologists discovered that an epidemic wiped out an entire pre historic village in, what we know today as China. They came to this conclusion after discovery of a house that was filled with skeletons. These were skeletons of juveniles, adults and middle aged people. The archaeological site is now known as ‘Hamin Mangha’. Archaeological and anthropological studies indicate that the disease spread so quickly that there was no time for burial and the place was never inhabited again. In this article I will be looking at the six biggest pandemics in recorded history of modern times.

Modern times pandemics

The first big pandemic to hit the world in recorded history was the Plague of Justinian in the year 541-542 CE. It was preceded by two pandemics but the scale was not that large. They were ‘Antonine plague’ in the year 165-180 CE that is estimated to have killed five million people in the Roman Empire and ‘Plague of Cyprian’ during the year 250-271 CE that killed about five thousand people every day in Rome alone. How many exactly died is still unknown.

Plague of Justinian No One Left to Die (541-42 CE)

The bacteria that caused the plague is known as Yersinia Pestis. This single bacteria caused three of the deadliest pandemics in recorded history, a fatal infection also known as the Plague. The outbreak happened in the year 541 in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), the capital of Byzantine Empire. It is said that the bacteria was carried from Egypt, a land that was recently conquered and it came with the grains sent to pay tribute to Emperor Justinian. Plague-ridden fleas hitched a ride on the black rats that snacked on the grain. It destroyed Constantinople and spread across continents, Europe, Asia, North Africa and Arabia killing an estimated 30 to 50 million people, perhaps half of the world’s population at that time. There was no understanding and knowledge on how to fight the pandemic apart from avoiding people affected by it. So how did the plague end? According to historians, only plausible guess is during pandemics majority of the people survive and those who survive have immunity.

Black Death and the Invention of Quarantine (1347)

The fact is that the disease never went away and it returned with vengeance after 800 years. It killed with reckless abandon. The ‘Black Death’ as it is called hit Europe in 1347 and claimed an astonishing 200 million lives over the next four years. People still had no scientific understanding of contagion and did not know how to stop the disease. They, somehow, figured it out that it had something to do with close proximity. So, forward-thinking officials in Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa decided to keep newly arrived sailors in isolation until they could prove they weren’t sick. At first sailors were confined to their ships for thirty days which was later increased to forty days. In Venetian law it came to be known as ‘trentino’. The forced isolation ‘quarantino’ was the origin of the word quarantine and its practice in the Western world. Historians say this definitely had an effect on the spread of the pandemic.

The Great Plague of London—Sealing Up the Sick (1348-1665)

London never really caught a break after the Black Death. Every time it was assumed that it’s over, the plague would resurface roughly every 20 years from 1348 to 1665. There were forty outbreaks in 300 years. Every new plague epidemic killed 20 per cent of the men, women and children living in the British capital. Early 16th century Britain first imposed the law to segregate and isolate the sick. Anybody who had an infected person in the family had to carry a white pole when out in public. Cats and dogs were believed to carry the disease, so there was a wholesale massacre of hundreds of thousands of animals. More than one hundred thousand Londoners were killed in just seven months in The Great Plague of 1665. It was the last and one of the worst of the centuries-long outbreaks. The victims were forcibly shut in their homes and all public entertainment was banned to arrest the spread of the disease. It could have been probably the only way to bring the last great plague outbreak to an end.

Smallpox—A European Disease Ravages the New World (15th-18th century)

Smallpox was endemic to Europe, Asia and Arabia for centuries. It killed three out of ten people it infected and left the rest with pockmarked scars. The number of deaths and devastation it caused in the New World was much greater than the pandemics of the Old World. The smallpox virus arrived in the 15th Century with the first European explorers. The indigenous peoples of modernday Mexico and the United States had zero natural immunity to smallpox and the virus killed them by the tens of millions. In fact it wiped out 90-95 per cent of the indigenous population; over a century Mexico’s indigenous population came down to one million from eleven million. It took almost three centuries before a vaccine was discovered that started the process of ending the epidemic. It was in late 18th century, a British doctor Edward Jenner discovered that milkmaids infected with a milder virus called cowpox seemed immune to smallpox. Jenner inoculated his gardener’s 9-year old son with cowpox and then exposed him to the smallpox virus with no ill effect.
“The annihilation of the smallpox, the most dreadful scourge of the human species, must be the final result of this practice,” wrote Jenner in 1801. His words turned out to be prophetic. Though it took almost two more centuries, in 1980 the World Health Organisation announced that smallpox had been completely eradicated from the face of the earth.

Cholera—A Victory for Public Health Research (1831-60)

In the first half of the 19th century, Cholera tore through Britain, killing tens of thousands. The prevailing scientific theory at the time was that the disease is spread by foul air known as ‘miasma’. But a British doctor named John Snow suspected that the mysterious disease that killed its victims within days of the first symptoms, had some connection with London’s drinking water. He began investigating hospital records and morgue reports to find out the exact locations of the outbreak of this killer disease. He created a geographical chart of Cholera deaths over a ten day period and to his surprise he found a cluster of five hundred fatalities surrounding the Broad Street pump. He later wrote, “As soon as I became acquainted with the situation and extent of this eruption (sic) of cholera, I suspected some contamination of the water of the much-frequented street-pump in Broad Street,” With great effort, Snow convinced local officials to remove the pump handle on the Broad Street drinking well. That rendered it unusable, and like magic the infections dried up. His work didn’t cure cholera overnight, but it eventually led to a global effort to improve urban sanitation and protect drinking water from contamination. The developed world has largely eradicated Cholera but it still kills a lot of people in developing and third world countries with inadequate sewage treatment and insufficient access to clean drinking water.

Spanish Flu: 1918-1920

The 1918 influenza pandemic, Spanish Flu was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus. Till today a consensus is eluding us so far as the origin of the virus is concerned. It spread across the world in 1918-20. The virus infected five hundred million people or one third of the world’s population. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least fifty million worldwide. The unique feature of this pandemic was the high mortality rate in healthy people in the 20-40 years age bracket. Mortalit was higher in the age group below 5 and people above 65. While the H1N1 virus has been synthesised and evaluated, yet there is no vaccine to protect against it. So to control it, worldwide measures were limited to isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and restricting of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly. The name given to H1N1 virus ‘Spanish Flu’ is quite interesting. The disease in all probability did not break in Spain. Spain was a neutral nation during World War 1. As it did not enforce strict censorship on press, early accounts of the disease were freely published. As a result, people falsely believed the illness was specific to Spain, and the name Spanish Flu stuck. Apart from these there have been many pandemics like AIDS, Ebola, Zika, and SARS in modern times among others. Influenza infections are dangerous and even after science and medicine have made great progress, even in 21st Century humanity is struggling to find an answer to these deadly outbreaks which are more frequent now.

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