20 of History's Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics

Steve - March 1, 2019

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
The January 12, 1890, edition of the satirical magazine Le Grelot, depicting an influenza sufferer followed a parade of hysterical hangers-on. By Pépin E. Guillaumin (c. 1889. Wikimedia Commons.

3. Originating in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg, the flu pandemic of 1889-1890 rapidly spread throughout the globe to kill more than a million people within two months

Sometimes referred to as “Russian flu” or “Asiatic flu”, although not to be confused with the Russian flu strain known as H1N1, the pandemic of 1889-1990 was a worldwide outbreak of influenza. Assisted by the advancement of modern transport infrastructure, with the largest nineteen nations of Europe possessing a collective two hundred thousand kilometers of railway by the late-19th century, influenza, for the first time, was provided the opportunity to become truly global in scope. First recorded in Saint Petersburg in December 1889, within four months the virus had spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Demonstrating the rapidity of its spread, the peak of the pandemic in the United States was the second week of January 1890. Taking just five weeks to reach peak mortality, more than one million people worldwide were killed by the outbreak. Originally thought to have been a strain of the H2N2 influenza virus, known as Asian flu and mutated from birds, modern medical analysis has cast doubt on this claim. Instead, it is widely suggested today that the pandemic was a result of the broader H3N8 strain, more commonly found in ducks, dogs, and horses.

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
Emergency hospital during the influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas (c. 1918). Wikimedia Commons.

2. “Spanish flu”, as the 1918 influenza pandemic became to be known, killed almost five percent of the world in the aftermath of the First World War

The 1918 influenza pandemic, colloquially known as “Spanish flu”, remains among the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Due to wartime censorship in Allied nations, neutral Spain, not being involved placed no such restrictions on the press, and the accurate reporting of outbreaks in the Iberian nation led people to incorrectly associate the illness with Spain. An atypically deadly flu pandemic involving the H1N1 strain of the virus, modern transportation, the close quarters of soldiers during World War I, the weakened condition of many of these soldiers, and the fast movement of troops, helped spread the virus as far away as the Pacific Islands and the Arctic.

A precise explanation for the high mortality rate is uncertain, with flu traditionally claiming the young or old; in contrast, Spanish flu predominantly killed healthy young adults. Infecting an estimated five hundred million people worldwide, approximately one-third of humanity, within the first year of the pandemic life expectancy in the United States dropped twelve years. Carrying a mortality rate of between ten and twenty percent, it is estimated the pandemic was responsible for the deaths of between fifty and one hundred million people, representing three to five percent of the global population, including as many as twenty-five million in the first six months.

20 of History’s Most Devastating Plagues and Epidemics
The influenza viruses that caused the Hong Kong flu (magnified approximately 100,000 times). F. A. Murphy, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis/ Wikimedia Commons.

1. The last pandemic to claim more than one million lives, “Hong Kong flu” spread quickly around the world but fortunately carried an atypically low mortality rate

The 1968 flu pandemic, more commonly referred to as “Hong Kong flu” and lasting between 1968 and 1969, was the product of mutations in the influenza virus. The first known outbreak of the H3N2 strain, descended from the H2N2 strain the new variant was a response to the traditionally avian virus mutating within a swine host. First appearing in the city of Hong Kong on July 13, 1968, Chinese authorities, failing to learn from an outbreak of Asian flu in 1957, were extremely slow to respond or issue warnings. By the end of July, outbreaks were reported in both Vietnam and Singapore, with India, the Philippines, Australia, and Europe infected by September.

Reaching the United States via troops returning from the Vietnam War in December, Africa and South America were eventually infected in 1969. Fortunately for humanity, compared to other flu pandemics Hong Kong flu carried a low mortality rate. This was chiefly because of a winter outbreak, some natural immunity after the Asian flu outbreak, and vastly improved medical care. Killing an estimated one million people worldwide, including 33,800 in the United States, a vaccine was developed as rapidly as possible and began being administered as early as 1968 to some patients.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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Seeking Hope, They Found Death“, Rene Bruemmer, Montreal Gazette (May 30, 2009)

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