A History of Global Epidemics and Pandemics


The world is battling one of the most dangerous and widespread global pandemics right now. With its end nowhere in sight, and daily spike in number of infected cases, the COVID-19 has truly become a medical, scientific and administrative challenge of giant proportions.

However, this is not the first time the world has been ravaged by a contagious disease – be it an epidemic or a pandemic. First of all, do you understand the difference between these terms? According to Merriam Webster Dictionary –
An epidemic is defined as “an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time.” A pandemic is a type of epidemic (one with greater range and coverage), an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. While a pandemic may be characterized as a type of epidemic, you would not say that an epidemic is a type of pandemic.

Here is a short history of the worst pandemic and epidemic outbreaks that the world has seen –

  1. Plague of Athens – 430 BCE
    No one really knows which exact disease it was which wiped out a population of nearly 1 lakh in Athens in 430 BCE. This outbreak is believed to have lasted for 5 years. The Greek Historian, Thucydides, described the outbreak in these words – “people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath” (From the book “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” London Dent, 1914).
  2. Antonine Plague – 165 to 180 CE
    This may have been a small pox outbreak, which killed close to 5 million people in the Roman Empire. Experts who study historical diseases believe that the infection may have been brought to the Roman Empire by soldiers travelling after the war with Parthia.
  3. Justinian Plague – 541-42 CE
    Named after the Byzantine Emperor – Justinian, this was a bubonic plague which recurred periodically, and is said to have wiped out 10% of the world’s population. Gradually, after the plague, the Byzantine empire also diminished in strength.
  4. The Black Death of 1346-1353 CE
    Caused by a strain of bacterium called Yersinia pestis, this plague led to the end of almost half of Europe’s population. The infection is said to have travelled from Asia to Europe, and was a game changer in the course of Europe’s history.
  5. The Great Pestilence of 16th Century
    The Great Pestilence is also known as Cocoliztli Epidemic, and it was responsible for millions of deaths in what is the present-day Mexico. Cocoliztli was the name given to the disease by the native Aztecs, which was a mysterious illness characterized by fevers and bleeding. The worst period of outbreak was from 1545 to 1548. In its entirety, the disease is said to have led to the loss of 5 to 15 million lives.
  6. The Great Plague of London – 1665-1666
    This was the last outbreak of Bubonic Plague in London, and is estimated to have costed 100,000 lives – amounting to 15% of the population of London. The main cause of transmission were fleas which came in contact with infected rodents.
  7. The Russian Plague – 1770-72
    This plague’s casualty count also numbered to a lakh, and made Catherine the Great issue a decree ordering all factories to be moved out of Moscow. It was a bubonic plague, which affected Ukraine, Central Russia and let to a Plague Riot in Moscow.
  8. Spanish Flu (Pandemic) – 1918-20
    The effects of the Spanish Flu were catastrophic. It affected an estimated 500 million people around the world. Certain ethnic communities, confined within a geography, were pushed to the precarious point of extinction. It was caused by H1N1 Influenza A virus. An interesting fact is, despite its name, the flu likely did not start in Spain.
  9. The Asian Flu Pandemic – 1957-58
    A mix of Avian flu viruses (H2N2) caused the Asian Flu Pandemic, which led to the loss of as many as 1 million lives. Like the Corona, it also originated in China – in a place called Guizhou.
  10. Swine Flu – 2009
    A new strain of H1N1, which started in Mexico, caused the Swine Flu pandemic. Within a year, the virus affected 1.4 billion people worldwide. The flue primarily affected children and young adults. Most viruses show increased fatality in age groups above 65, but the Swine Flu’s fatality rate for population younger than 65 was a whopping 85%.

Several other names of fatal diseases, having caused an epidemic or pandemic at some time, which did not make it to this list are – Ebola, Zika, Polio and HIV/AIDS. A dive into the history is a good way to derive safety and caution for our present and future.

With the current pandemic, we hope you are observing all measures of safety and sanitation. Stay indoors. Stay safe. And Keep learning!