Coronavirus pandemic joins a long list of killers that has stalked humanity

Durban – AS THE world grapples to come to terms with the coronavirus pandemic, there has been much on social media about the “century killers”: 1720 Plague, 1820 Cholera Outbreak, 1920 Spanish Flu and 2020 Covid-19.

While the 1920 Spanish Flu was the deadliest pandemic in history and Covid-19 has yet to end with a final tally, some quick research revealed that the so-called pattern of the centuries is inaccurate, with many plagues and viruses stalking humanity throughout history.

There were two great plagues recorded in earlier times: in 541-542, the Plague of Justinian killed an estimated 25-50million people, or 40% of the population in Europe, Egypt and West Asia. It particularly affected the Byzantine Empire and its grand capital Constantinople, with recurrences until 750.

Justinian I was emperor at the time and although he contracted the disease, he survived. This plague was also the first recorded epidemic and it was believed that it was caused by infected rats brought in on grain ships from Egypt. The most basic, or root level, of existing strains of Yersinia pestis as a whole species are found in Qinghai, China.

From 1347 to 1353 the Black Death, also known as The Great Bubonic plague, took a massive toll on the populations of Europe, Asia and North Africa, with an estimated fatality of up to 200 million and an estimated 60% of the European population. At that point in history, no other recorded plague had such a devastating effect. It was also caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, but was not a direct descendant of the strain from the Justinian Plague. It resulted in three forms of plague – septicemic, pneumonic and bubonic, which was the most common.

It is believed the Black Death travelled from Asia along the Silk Road trade route, reaching Crimea by 1343, and was then carried by fleas on rats that travelled on Genoese merchant ships, spreading the plague across the Mediterranean.

Perhaps it is a coincidence to note that during the 16th century, Mexico (or New Spain as it was known) suffered a ravaging smallpox epidemic in 1520, but far worse was to come, with the Mexican population being hit with a series of Cocoliztli epidemics, the most damaging being 1545-48 during which it is estimated 15 million people, or 80% of the population, died as a result.

While the symptoms of that mysterious new disease were high fevers and bleeding, recent genetic research has shown the initial outbreak may have been partially caused by a salmonella strain, although it was also recorded as having been a viral hemorrhagic fever. Historians have noted that the worst drought in 500 years also hit North America and Mexico in the mid 1500s and have questioned whether that played a role in the epidemic.

The 17th century saw Europe being heavily impacted by plague, with The Great Plague of London 1665-66 being the most famous during which an estimated 200000 people died in London over seven months.

One in four Londoners succumbed to the disease. The plague was followed by the Great Fire of London 1666 which cleansed the city of the plague-carrying rats.

Before that, the Italian Plague of 1629-31 saw an estimated 280000 deaths, while the Great Plague of Vienna had 76000 fatalities.

While the plague appeared to have retreated in the late 17th century, it came back with a vengeance at the start of the 18th century during the Great Northern War (1700-21) with the Great Plague of Marseilles in France in 1820 with an estimated 100000 deaths and a devastating two million deaths during the Persia Plague of 1772.

The 19th century saw the first cholera pandemic take hold in Asia and Europe from 1816-26, claiming 100000 lives. The water-borne disease returned in Asia, Europe and North America from 1829-51, taking a further 100000 lives, with an estimated one million deaths in Russia between 1852-60.

The century ended with a worldwide influenza epidemic from 1889-90 and which claimed one million lives.

And then into the 20th century.

As World War I or the Great War ended in 1918, the deadly Spanish Flu (influenza A virus subtype H1N1) took the world by storm from 1918 until 1920, infecting an estimated 500million people or about a third of the world’s population. The death rate has been estimated to have possibly been as high as 100million.

The other major killer of the 20th century was the HIV/Aids pandemic, which has also killed millions.

But when it comes to flu, the Spanish Flu was the first of two pandemics involving the H1N1 influenza virus, the second being in the 21st century – the 2009 swine flu pandemic – although this was a new strain from a combination of bird, pig and human flu viruses.

While the World Health Organisation put the number of deaths from swine flu at 18500, there have been reports since then that this number may well have been much higher, with some suggesting 10 times higher.

In 2002-04, the Sars coronavirus (Sars-CoV) caused the outbreak of Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in China which recorded more than 700 deaths.

A related virus Sars-CoV-2 is behind the current coronavirus outbreak.

By Friday the total number of deaths worldwide of the current Covid-19 passed 10 000.


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