The History of Pandemics

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This article is contributed by Dr. Aishwarya Ghotane, an Ayurveda doctor and dermatologist at Amrutam.Global. If you are looking for a holistic solution for your skin and hair-related problems, book a consultation with Dr. Aishwarya today!

The outset of pandemics

An Epidemic is a disease that affects a large number of people within the community or region. An Endemic is something that affects a particular community or country. A Pandemic is an epidemic that's spread over multiple countries or continents.

The outset of pandemics goes back to many centuries though Covid-19 isn’t the first pandemic of this century. SARS and Swine Flu were the pandemics before Covid- 19. Humankind has overcome pandemics for a long time.

The cause of most infectious diseases is animal and human interference. Viruses jump from animals to humans which are called zoonotic viruses. They are transmitted in various ways; such as through the air, by eating contaminated meat, through contact with an infected animal, by touching an area or surface that the infected animal has touched, through insect bites like mosquitos or ticks. There are hundreds of zoonotic viruses which are not yet recognized by mankind. These zoonotic viruses are going to cause various outbreaks in the future due to humankind's vast exploitation.

Pandemics in the past

Looking back at the history of pandemics, it is seen that the first pandemic reported is the Athenian plague which had occurred in 430–26 B.C. During the war fought between the city-states of Athens and Sparta. The cause of the Athenian plague of 430 B.C. has not been determined but it spread quickly because of the war which led to overcrowding in the city of Athens.

Another outbreak was seen a couple of centuries later called The Antonine Plague of 165–180 AD. It occurred in the Roman Empire and affected Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and Italy. It destroyed a large amount of the Roman Military diminishing their global supremacy.

The Plague of Justinian or ‘real plague” caused by Yersinia Pestis is another prominent mention. It originated in 541 AD in Ethiopia, moving through Egypt, in the Central Asian steppes, where it then travelled along the trading routes. Military movement at the time contributed to spreading the disease from Asia Minor to Africa and Italy, and further to Western Europe. The first symptoms included fever and fatigue. Later buboes (enlarged lymph nodes) appeared in the groin area or armpits, or beside the ears. After this the disease progresses rapidly; infected individuals die within days. Many people died painfully when their buboes gangrened; others died vomiting blood. It is estimated 30 to 50 million people, perhaps half of the world’s population died due to disease or either by starvation in this period.

Read more: Basic Covid Protocols to Follow while Home-Quarantining

The Black Death originated in China and hit Europe in 1347 later spreading through Asia, Russia, and the Middle East. This outbreak was caused by the bubonic plague bacteria as well. Fleas would bite a rat infected with the plague bacteria, and then infect healthy people when they would bite them next. This is the pandemic when the idea of Quarantines emerged to avoid further spreading of the disease. The sailors were held on their ships for 30 days, which became known in Venetian law as a Trentino. As time went on, the Venetians increased the forced isolation to 40 days or a quarantino, the origin of the word quarantine. It is estimated 75 to 200 million died. The mortality rate was 10% with treatment and up to 90% without treatment.

The first epidemic eradicated by the vaccine

The Smallpox Pandemic (1877) is one of the deadliest ever seen by mankind. It has almost killed 500 million people over the years. The mortality rate was up to 35%. 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 indigenous people of modern-day Mexico and the United States had zero natural immunity to smallpox. Mexico’s population alone went from 11 million people to one million. Centuries later, smallpox became the first virus epidemic to be ended by a vaccine. In the late 18th-century, a British doctor named Edward Jenner discovered that milkmaids infected with a milder virus called cowpox seemed immune to smallpox. Jenner inoculated his gardener’s 8-year-old son with cowpox and then exposed him to the smallpox virus with no ill effect. In 1980, the WHO declared smallpox eradicated.

The Spanish Flu pandemic started in 1918 was seen in the first decades of the twentieth century. It was caused by the H1N1 strain of the influenza virus, which later caused an outbreak in the early years of the twenty-first century. It followed an Airborne transmission model; coughing, sneezing, and breathing in the air from infected individuals was the primary mode of infection.  Within months, the deadly H1N1 strain of the influenza virus had spread to almost every corner of the world. The mortality rate of the Spanish flu ranged between 10% to 20%. It killed 50 million - 100 million.

The HIV Pandemic that started in 1981 is still present to date. It is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), transmitted through contact with the blood, semen, or breast milk of an infected person. It causes about one million deaths every year worldwide. Approximately, 32 million people have lost their lives to the virus.

The SARS outbreak

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was the first outbreak in the twenty-first century in 2003. It is caused by the SARS Coronavirus (SARS- CoV). It started in China and affected fewer than 10,000 individuals. Mainly in China and Hong Kong, but also in Canada. It had a mortality rate of about 10%. Due to the vigilance of public health systems worldwide, the outbreak was contained by mid-2003. This outbreak was among the first that had mental health aspects studied in the process, including the mental health issues that healthcare providers faced. Some of the valuable insights into the mental health of patients in isolation, survivors of the severe illness, or psychological sequelae of working with such patients were researched during the SARS outbreak.

The Swine flu / H1N1 flu Pandemic was seen in 2009. This was a reprise of the “Spanish flu” pandemic from 1918, but with far less devastating consequences. It started in Mexico in April of 2009 and was declared a pandemic within weeks. Eventually, it began to taper off toward the end of the year and by May of 2010, it was declared over. Infected over 10% of the global population (lower than expected), with a death toll that is estimated to vary between 2,00,000 to 5,00,000.

COVID Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing pandemic caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The virus was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. The WHO declared it as a pandemic in March 2020. As of 31 May 2021, more than 170 million cases have been confirmed, with more than 3.54 million confirmed deaths attributed to COVID-19, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in history.

We have faced many pandemics to date but whether it may be smallpox or Spanish flu we have come strong and overcome it. Each pandemic has given us a lesson to be taken forward. The current pandemic is not over yet but I’m confident that we will defeat it by taking collective efforts.


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