The Coronavirus pandemic continues with infection and death rates going up. COVID-19 is spreading faster compared to most pandemics¹ including HIV and Ebola as new hotpsots emerge.
The high mutation rate of COVID-19 requires social distancing and hygiene measures to contain the outbreak. The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global disaster.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning for tracing, testing and vaccine development is helping countries flatten the curve.
The success of South Korea, Greece and Taiwan in stopping COVID-19 is an example to the world about response measures. Mass testing²in South Korea controlled the outbreak with European countries struggling to contain the pandemic.
The COVID-19 experience should encourage the World to review past pandemics, learn from them, and prepare for the future.
In this article, I will explore the worst pandemics in human history from the highest-lowest death toll.
Overview of Worst Pandemics
President George W. Bush during his presidency pointed that America should put in place measures to handle a pandemic and his words ring true as the world battles COVID-19. The World was least prepared as the coronavirus struck with infections and death toll climbing.
Here are the top ten pandemics in the world:
1. The Black Death (200M People)
This is the worst pandemic in human history with a death toll of 200M people. The bubonic plague caused the Black Death³, which began in 1346 ending in 1353. The disease originated from rats in travelling ships, which docked in ports giving flea’s new breeding grounds.
The Black Death plague affected Africa, Europe, and Asia as voyage ships used routes within these Continents. Fleas from rats caused the pandemic by creating the growth conditions for bacteria. Historians describe the Black Death as the worst epidemic in human history as 200M people lost their lives.
2. Flu Pandemic (50M People)
The Flu pandemic caused by influenza occurred with two outbreaks in 1918 and 1968 respectively.
This is the second-worst pandemic that occurred in 1918 killing 50M people and with 30M deaths in 6 months since the outbreak began. The mortality rate of 20% made this flu pandemic deadly causing deaths around the globe. Flu pandemics⁴ affect people with weak immune systems compared to those with strong immune systems.
This changed with the 1918 Flu pandemic killing people with strong immune systems with the weak surviving. This Flu pandemic infected 600M people worldwide. This was the second wave of the flu pandemic and the most deadly.
3. HIV AIDS (4OM People)
The human immuno deficiency virus comes third in our list with over 36M lives lost since the pandemic began in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The first cases of HIV appeared in 1976 with the spread accelerating to other populations across the African Continent and to the world. The death toll of 40M represents victims who succumbed since 1981 when the outbreak continued increased exponentially.
The WHO estimates that a larger majority of HIV infected victims are in Sub-Saharan Africa with an estimated 20M people currently with the disease. Advanced vaccines and drugs have slowed down the HIV virus with patients surviving for long by taking anti-retroviral drugs.
HIV spreads in the human body by destroying white blood cells, which are responsible for the immune strength of a person. ARV drugs save lives by cushioning white blood cells against the HIV virus thereby elongating human life.
4. JUSTINIAN Plague (25M People)
The Plague of Justinian caused by the bubonic plague broke out in 541 AD with the pandemic killing 25M people. The regions around the Mediterranean experienced the worst of this pandemic with other areas such as Byzantine affected as well.
The Constantinople area succumbed to this plague with more people losing their lives each day. Unlike other pandemics, the Plague of Justinian killed many people in a single day with estimates at 5000.
5. ANTONINE PLAGUE (5M)
The Antonine Plague occurred in 165 AD killing 5M people with Greece, Italy, and Egypt the most affected regions. The plague also spread to Asia but in some areas compared to the latter. Medics could not determine the cause of this pandemic with the disease showing similar attributes to measles.
This plague influenced power during the Roman Empire as the outbreak eliminated almost all Roman soldiers. There are claims that the Antonine Plague had similar symptoms with smallpox disease known to kill many people during the first days of an outbreak.
6. Asian Flu (2M)
The Asian flu caused by influenza occurred in 1956 with the first case reported in Guizhou, China, and later spread to parts of Asia and North America. Hong Kong experienced the Asian flu outbreak with the disease-causing more deaths in the USA.
The Asian flu denoted as H2N2 subtype falls under Influenza A category of flu diseases. With the flu spreading to Singapore, the death toll was quickly rising, as countries in the region lacked containment measures at the time. This pandemic lasted for two years with the death toll and infections stabilizing in 1958.
7. Flu Pandemic (1M People)
This is the third wave of the flu pandemic, which began in 1968 killing 1M people with the first incident reported in Hong Kong. This flu pandemic originated from the H2N2 subtype with the H3N2 causing the outbreak and belongs to the Influenza A category.
The spread to other parts of the world started after 3 weeks with reported cases confirmed in Vietnam. Asia experienced the most effects of this pandemic with Singapore bearing the brunt. Global cases⁵ started with reports in the USA and Europe while killing many people. The pandemic spread to Australia and India where it took the lives of more people.
8. Flu Pandemic (1M)
This is the first wave (1889) of the Flu pandemic caused by Influenza leading to deaths of 1M people around the world. The subtype H3N8 caused this outbreak with reported cases in Greenland and Asia. The infection rate⁶ increased as the flu killed people within a short time.
The central region of Asia experienced the biggest damage from this outbreak with many deaths reported here. At the time of this flu pandemic, medical research was not available and most people died because of inadequate medical attention. The pandemic lasted for 1 year with the last case reported in 1890.
9. Third Cholera Epidemic (1M)
In the modern world, cholera outbreaks can be controlled and mostly occur in third world countries with poor medical systems. This cholera epidemic was different in 1852 as the outbreak led to the deaths of 1M people.
The control of the cholera epidemic posed challenges to people with no information about combating the outbreak. A combination of factors such as poor hygiene and lack of medical support exacerbated the pandemic.
10. Sixth Cholera Pandemic (800,000 People)
This is the last pandemic in our top ten list of worst diseases that have affected humanity. Unlike the wave of 1852, this cholera pandemic claimed 850,000 lives with origins from India. The pandemic expanded with new cases reported in Russia and the Northern parts of Africa.
The Arab world experienced this pandemic with more deaths reported on the Eastern side of Europe as the outbreak continued to spread. The United States responded early to this pandemic by developing isolation and quarantine measures to prevent further spread of the outbreak. These efforts paid off as few deaths occurred in the US with 10 deaths.
Early response and Strict Containment Measures for Pandemics
From this list of pandemics, the Black Death outbreak stands out because of claiming 200M lives. This number should remind countries about preparation measures for pandemics. The United States fits this bill because of the laxity by the Trump administration in responding to the COVID-19 crisis.
As we speak, over 100,000 Americans have lost their lives and this teaches the world a lesson about handling pandemics. The US had more time to prepare for COVID-19 and with technology supporting the world in 2020, more needs to be done to avert such disasters in the future. Data analytics, machine learning, and AI solutions are supporting response efforts to COVID-19.
The Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization is spearheading control efforts with visualizations dashboards such as John Hopkins tracking spread of COVID-19. Pandemics⁷ come in different contexts and calls for preparations by adopting artificial intelligence solutions for accurate response systems.
The global race for the COVID-19 vaccine⁸ continues with China, Europe, and US leading efforts to find solutions. The recent collaboration between the White House, academic researchers, and tech companies such as Microsoft in responding to coronavirus is a step in the right direction.