World’s Deadliest Plagues

We are all aware of the novel virus epidemics of our time – Ebola, SARS and now Coronavirus – and their rapid transmission from person to person and state to state. However, epidemics in the past were far more deadly and gruesome.

Many of these diseases originated in Africa and Asia, and were spread rapidly due to colonisation, urbanisation and war. In our increasingly global world where travel – often between major urban hubs – is inexpensive and easy, we wonder if at a time of relative peace, stability and awareness, the novel Coroanvirus has the same terrifying damage potential as some of these historic epidemics and pandemics.

The Third Cholera Pandemic, 1846-60

Scientists believe that the third and most deadly Cholera pandemic originated in India, before spreading far beyond its borders and to almost every corner of the world. It is estimated that 1 million people died in Russia, and 23,000 died in great Britain. The infamous Broad Street Cholera outbreak which saw the fall of 10,000 Londoners is just one of the many pieces to this global pandemic puzzle.

The Asian Flu Pandemic, 1957

The Asian Flu pandemic was an outbreak of influenza originating in East Asia and eventually spreading to countries worldwide. The Asian flu was a mixed strain, combining viruses normally held by birds with ordinary human flu viruses. It is estimated that the Asian flu killed between 1 – 2 million people.

Typhus Fever, WWI

Typhus is a disease spread by lice which are a prevalent feature of war, famine, cold weather and natural disasters. During world war one, the lice began to spread a particular bacteria which presented in humans as Typhus. The outbreak was responsible for an estimated 3 million deaths in Russia and on the Eastern Front. In the trenches on the Western Front, soldiers contracted lice without the associated Typhus bacteria, but with a different strain of disease causing what became known as “Trench Fever”, infecting approximately 1 million soldiers but not ordinarily resulting in death.

Cocolitzli Epidemic, 1545

Along with war famine and other diseases such as smallpox, measles and mumps, the “Cocolitzli” Epidemic is believed to have wiped out between 15 – 30 million Central American natives upon the arrival of the Spanish in the new world. The reason the disease spread so far and killed so many among the indigenous population (and not the invaders themselves) is that they had no immunity to the European diseases that had landed on their shores.

Plague of Justinian, 541–542 AD

This deadly pandemic affected the eastern roman empire, specifically Constantinople and port cities along the Mediterranean sea. This particular plague is estimated to have killed 25 million people which was almost 13% of the global population at the time! Necrosis of the limbs was one of the terrifying symptoms. This plague was named after the Eastern Roman empire Justinian, who ruled at the time.

Antonine Plague, 165-180 AD

The Antonine Plague was transported to the Roman Empire by troops returning from the Near East. Historians suspect that the disease was in fact smallpox or measles, but a definitive cause has not been identified. The death toll was approximately 5 million.

The Third Plague Pandemic, 1855

The Third Plague Pandemic, also referred to as the Modern Plague, refers to the most recent Bubonic plague pandemic the world has experienced. Originating in Yunnan, China, the disease spread for approximately 20 years to Hong Kong and port cities around the world by rats and fleas before it was eventually halted. The Third Plague caused an estimated 10 million deaths.

The Black Death, 1334

The Black Death is also known as the Great Plague, and was one of the most devastating epidemics in all of history. This Bubonic Plague originated in China, and travelled along the trade routes from the Far East to Constantinople and Europe. It is said that the Great plague wiped out up to 60% of the European population, and over 100 million people globally, leaving entire towns devastated or desolate.

The Great Flu Epidemic, 1918

The 1918 Influenza Epidemic, also known as the Spanish Flu, is the most severe in modern history. This flu pandemic was of Avian origin (coming from birds) and infected 500 million people, or a third of the global population. It is believed to have spread so quickly due to the side-effects of WWI: malnutrition, overcrowded hospitals and injury units, poor hygiene, and the mass movements of troops. The number of deaths from this novel flu virus was an estimated 50 million.

HIV/AIDS Global Pandemic, 1960’s – present

HIV/AIDS is believed to have originated in chimpanzees and spread to humans in the 1920s, most likely through in injury during the butchering of infected bushmeat. HIV/AIDS is spread through the transmission of certain bodily fluids. Early symptoms of HIV are flu like, and though the virus does not currently have a cure, it is often a manageable health condition. Since the first cases of this Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) were reported in 1981, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) has grown to pandemic proportions, resulting an an estimated 65 million infections and 25 million deaths. Governments and organisations are working hard to provide education on HIV prevention.

More information:

Study Guide: Epidemics Throughout The Ages

Where in the Wild has the Coronavirus Come From?

Worldometer: Live COVID-19 Updates

GOV.UK Guidance

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guidance

Australian Department of Health Guidance