With the advent of modern medical technology and discoveries, an individual’s life expectancy have dramatically increased all around the world just within the few decades. But looking back through human history, the health sector has a very bitter story to tell. It’s hard to believe the absurdly high death tolls caused by a single disease for anyone living in this 21st century. Its somewhat unfathomable. Below we have complied a list of the top 10 deadliest epidemics in human history. Most of them are now curable or can be controlled with effective medical procedures, but the past death tolls are certainly a sad story to tell.
Poliomyletis, commonly referred as polio, is an infectious disease caused by the polio virus that infects the human nervous system. The infection caused by this disease leads to paralysis of body and in the majority of cases includes the paralysis of the legs. The polio epidemic outbreak in 1952 in the United States reported nearly 58,000 cases of victims. Of these cases, about 3,145 were reported dead and 21,269 remained with mild to disabling paralysis. The disease is now curable with the polio vaccine, however a number of doses are required for its effectiveness. Polio infection cases decreased drastically with 350,000 cases in 1988 to only 416 cases in 2013. In 2014 the disease was only still spreading in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. In 2015 Nigeria had succeeded in stopping the spread of this virus.
2. Epidemic Typhus/Camp Fever
Epidemic typhus also known as camp fever, hospital fever, jail fever etc.. and is caused by the micro organism Rickettsia prowazekii. The name given comes from the fact that the disease tends to follow wars, famine and natural disaster. The vector organism for this disease is the human body louse.
Common symptoms include severe headache, high fever, sweating, fall in blood pressure, severe muscle pain and finally death. From 1918 to 1922 the disease resulted in the death of nearly 3 million people out of 20-30 million cases reported. During World War I this disease was the cause for the death of about 3 million people living in Russia and more from Romania and Poland. Many now infamous pictures have been shot showing thousands of typhus victims in mass grave in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Now the disease can be treated with antibiotics and vaccination.
AIDS is a spectrum of condition caused by the infection caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). As the disease progresses with time, the victims immune system begins to deteriorate making him/her more susceptible to common infections like tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhoid etc. Since its discovery in 1981 to until now, the disease has caused an estimated death toll of 36 million people worldwide. The virus is transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse, contact with victim’s bodily fluid and from mother to child during pregnancy. The virus is still incurable, although highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) is available which slows the progression of disease and extends the life of victim by up to 10 years.
Malaria is an infectious disease caused by parasitic protozoans from the genus group plasmodium. The most common vector of this disease is the female Anopheles mosquito. Common symptoms include fever, headache, vomiting and fatigue. In 2012, a total of 207 million people were found to be infected by malaria of which approximately 473,000 to 789,000 people died and majority of this figure included children in Africa. Around 85-90% of malaria fatalities occurring at present are from parts of America, Asia and much of Africa lying in the broad band of the equator. Today the disease is treated with various antimalarial medications depending upon the type and severity of the disease.
Cholera is an infection of the small intestine by the microorganism known as Vibrio Cholerae. Common symptoms of this disease include sever diarrhea, muscle cramps, fatigue and vomiting. In fact diarrhea can be so severe that within hours victim’s body can become severely dehydrated which can cause an electrolyte imbalance. The major cause of transmission is due to fecal contamination of food and water as well as poor sanitation. The disease first spread in India starting around 1817 through 1824. Its widespread throughout the world now and during the 19th century this disease caused the death of tens of millions of people. As of 2010, cholera still affects an estimated 3-5 million people and causes the deaths of 58,000–130,000 people a year. The disease is curable through various antibiotics, but oral rehydration therapy is considered as better alternative as many cases has been reported showing resistance against the effectiveness of antibiotics.
Smallpox is an infectious disease caused by two virus variants namely Variola major and Variola minor. The characteristic symptoms with this disease include the appearance of a maculopapular rash in the skin which latter turns into a raised fluid filled blister. Smallpox is believed to be infecting the human population since 10,000 BC. About 400,000 Europeans were killed by this disease during the late 18th century. It was responsible for the deaths of 300–500 million people during 20th century. After the worldwide vaccination program launched during the 19th and 20th centuries, the WHO certified its global eradication in 1979.
7. Yellow fever/Yellow plague
This disease is caused by the infection of the RNA. This virus belongs to the genus Flavivirus and is commonly transmitted by the female mosquito. The distinct name ‘Yellow fever’ comes from the characteristic symptoms of skin turning yellow due to damage of victim’s liver. Study shows yellow fever causes 200,000 infections and 30,000 deaths each year. 90% of these cases occur only in Africa. During 18th and 19th century the disease was considered as one of the most dangerous infectious diseases. Unil now, there was no effective cure available as for other Flavivirus. Although a symptomatic treatment like rehydration and pain relief with drugs such as paracetamol is advised along with intensive care.
8. The Black Death
The Black Death is one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. It caused the death of around 75 to 200 million people in Europe alone from the years 1346 to 1353. Research of the DNA of victims from northern and southern Europe shows that the epidemic was caused by the pathogen named Yersinia Pestis bacterium. In 14th century the plague reduced the world population from 450 million down to 350–375 million. The most commonly reported symptoms of the plague was the appearance of gavocciolos in the groin, neck and armpit.
9. The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918
One of the deadly influenza pandemics in human history was the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 which infected nearly 500 million people and killing 50 to 100 million people from all around the world (almost 3-5% of world’s population at that time). In contrast to other influenza outbreaks, the victims of this epidemic was mostly healthy young adults. The reason behind the outbreak was the strong immune reaction of young victims ravaging their body.
10. Tuberculosis (TB)
Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by a microbateria mycobacteria and generally infects the lungs of its victim. The disease is transmitted through air, or contaminated by the fluids from the victim ejected during sneezing and coughing. The distinctive symptoms include chronic cough, blood-tinged sputum, fever, night sweat and loss in body weight. Until now around one third of the world’s population is thought to have been infected with this disease and occurs in about 1% of world’s population each year. In 2013, 1.3 to 1.5 million deaths were recorded which were associated with TB and the majority of the cases were from developing countries. Most people from developing countries have been found to contract this disease due to poor immune system from the infection with HIV. Treatment of TB is difficult and requires the use of multiple drugs for long period of time along with intensive screening and care. Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem related with antibiotic resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB).
So, we have gone through the list of the most deadly epidemics in human history. Epidemic outbreaks have always been a war-zone for medical science. Throughout the many outbreaks medical science has struggled to fight back these diseased and has succeeded only in some rare cases while in other cases we are still struggling today.
Many of these diseases and outbreaks occur during times of war. To read more about these wars check out our list of the Top 10 Longest Wars in the History of Mankind.