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12 Significant Disease Pandemics in Human History

Alice is a dedicated online writer who enjoys researching human health topics and presenting them in digestible ways.

This article covers 12 significant disease pandemics in human history, from the Antonine Plague to tuberculosis to the 2019 coronavirus. Read on to find overviews of these important moments in the history of human health.

This article covers 12 significant disease pandemics in human history, from the Antonine Plague to tuberculosis to the 2019 coronavirus. Read on to find overviews of these important moments in the history of human health.

What Is a Pandemic?

The human race is always under threat from diseases, natural disasters, accidents, acts of terrorism, and many other dangerous events. Modern man has faced periodic disasters, and the biggest one of them is probably disease pandemics.

A pandemic refers to an infectious disease epidemic that spreads across a huge region, usually beyond one continent or even globally. Throughout the history of mankind, there have been several disease pandemics, like smallpox, bubonic plague, Spanish flu, and the recent 2019 coronavirus.

In this article, I give an overview of the following 12 significant disease pandemics in human history:

  1. Antonine Plague
  2. Black Death
  3. Spanish Flu
  4. Smallpox
  5. Cholera
  6. Tuberculosis
  7. Leprosy
  8. Malaria
  9. Yellow Fever
  10. HIV/AIDS
  11. 2009 H1N1 Flu Pandemic
  12. 2019 Coronavirus (COVID-19)

1. Antonine Plague (165-180 AD)

The Antonine Plague was a pandemic that flared up in the Roman Empire after the troops of Lucius Versus returned unknowingly with the disease from East Asia. Before reaching Italy itself, the army also spread the mysterious disease to Asia Minor and Greece.

The plague spread like wildfire, especially in the populous Roman cities. In addition, since the Romans had control over the whole Mediterranean, the disease spread as their troops and trading ships swarmed over the sea.

While the disease came under control after 180 AD, it came back nine years later, before it was diminished completely.

At the height of the Antonine Plague, at least 2,000 people died every day. And, the total number of deaths was approximately five million. It was speculated that the deaths of two Roman emperors, Lucius Versus and Marcus Aurelius in 169 AD and 180 AD respectively, were caused by the plague.

A Greek physician by the name of Galen witnessed numerous outbreaks of the mysterious disease first-hand and gave an account of many unpleasant symptoms. One of the symptoms that stood out was boils (pustules), and that led scholars into speculating that the mysterious disease was probably smallpox or measles.


2. Black Death (1347-1353)

The Black Death was one of the most calamitous pandemics in the history of mankind, leading to the death of millions of people in Eurasia. It was also referred to as the Great Bubonic Plague or the Pestilence. The cause of the pandemic was believed to be Yersinia pestis, which is a bacterium that causes several plague forms and is present in fleas living on rodents.

As the first significant plague outbreak in Europe and the second plague pandemic, the Black Death severely affected the religious, social, and economic standing of Europe. It is believed that the origin of the disease was in Central or East Asia before it reached Crimea in 1343 via the Silk Road. From Crimea, fleas on black rats probably traveled with the disease on Genoese trader ships across the Mediterranean Basin and the Italian Peninsula.

In addition to human beings, the Black Death plague also affected chickens, cows, goats, pigs, and sheep.

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The disease was characterized by swelling that could release blood and pus, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, aches, and finally death. It was extremely contagious, and it led to about 50 million fatalities in the 14th century.


3. Spanish Flu (1918-1920)

In 1918, an influenza strain called Spanish flu created a worldwide pandemic that spread fast and killed without discrimination. It affected the young and the old, as well as both the ailing and otherwise-healthy individuals. Approximately 500 million people contracted the Spanish flu, and at least 50 million of them died, making it one of the deadliest disease pandemics in the modern era.

While the virus was nicknamed the “Spanish flu” its origin might not have been in Spain. Different hypotheses have been proposed about the origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic, with the primary ones being the United States, France, and northern China.

The Spanish flu outbreak started at the end of the First World War. And, historians believe the existing conflict may have played a partial role in spreading the ailment. The cramped quarters and tremendous army movements during the war hastened the spread and most likely augmented mutation.

Some of the symptoms of the flu were aches, chills, fever, coughing, and respiratory distress.


4. Smallpox

Smallpox has a long history among human populations. The earliest physical proof of the disease was discovered in Egyptian mummies of individuals who came to their demise at least 3,000 years ago. It’s speculated that smallpox reached Europe during the 6th century, and by that time, it had already spread through Africa and Asia.

The cause of the contagious disease was the variola virus, and it was characterized by a violent fever and the appearance of pustules. If a patient survived smallpox, the pustules would ultimately scab over and break off. Many survivors also experienced blindness and disfigurement.

Smallpox killed 300 to 500 million people during the 20th century. In 1967, the disease affected about 15 million people, as reported by the World Health Organization, and killed two million of them.

Fortunately, the deadly disease was finally eradicated from humanity in December 1979.


5. Cholera

The world has been rocked by a total of seven pandemics in the past 200 years. In addition, numerous cholera outbreaks have been documented as well, including the 1991-1994 South American outbreak and the 2016-2020 outbreak in Yemen.

The first pandemic of cholera happened in India’s Bengal area, next to Calcutta. It began in 1817 and lasted till 1824. From India, the pandemic spread to Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa via trade channels.

The second pandemic of the lethal disease shook humanity from 1826 to 1837. North America and Europe were the most affected regions, because of transportation advancements, worldwide trade, and increased migration of people.

In 1846, the third cholera pandemic arose and lasted until 1860. For the first time, the disease reached South America, and most of the negative effects were felt in Brazil. North Africa was also affected by the third wave.

From 1863 to 1875, humanity was endangered again by cholera for the fourth time. This time, it reached Naples and Spain from India.

The fifth pandemic also began in India and found its way to Asia, South America, and Europe. It started in 1881 and persisted until 1896. In 1899, the sixth pandemic erupted in India once more and lasted until 1923.

Finally, the seventh pandemic sparked up in Indonesia in 1961. However, this pandemic marked the rise of a new cholera strain, which is called El Tor. Unfortunately, the new strain continues to persist in developing nations.


6. Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is one of the hugest threats to humanity, as it kills millions of people every year. The illness is airborne, meaning that it can be transmitted through coughing and sneezing.

Scientists have traced the first tuberculosis infection to around 9,000 years ago. The infectious disease spread across the world through trade routes, and it also found its way to African domesticated animals, like cows and goats. It is believed that seals were the main transmission mode of tuberculosis from Africa to South America.

In the 19th century, a tuberculosis pandemic hit and killed around 25% of the adult population in Europe. During that time, the disease was called the “White Plague,” and its slow progress allowed victims to arrange their affairs before they died. The 19th-century pandemic also affected New York City and New Orleans in the US, where most of the deaths were among Black people.

The first genuine vaccine against TB was developed in 1906 by Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin. It was known as BCG and its first use on human beings happened in 1921 in France.

Hopes that the infectious ailment could be eradicated completely were squashed in the 1980s after the eruption of drug-resistant strains. The resurgence was declared a global health emergency in 1993 by the World Health Organization, and each year, almost 500,000 new cases of multiple drug-resistant TB occur globally.


7. Leprosy

Leprosy is a chronic disease that results from Mycobacterium leprae, which is a bacillus. It has been mentioned several times in the Bible, making it one of the oldest diseases in human history.

Western Europe started to experience leprosy outbreaks at around 1000 AD. Many leper hospitals were built in the Middle Ages to control the pandemic.

Many believed that the slow-developing illness that brought sores and deformities was a Godly punishment that ran in families. As a result, victims of leprosy were morally judged and ostracized. In the modern world, the illness is known as “Hansen’s disease,” and it still affects thousands of people annually, and may be deadly if not combated with antibiotics.

Fortunately, leprosy is a curable disease, and about 15 million people have been cured of the ailment globally.


8. Malaria

Malaria widely affects people living in tropical and subtropical areas. Every year, roughly 350-500 million malaria cases are diagnosed. Resistance to drugs is an increasing issue when it comes to treating the illness in the 21st century. Drug resistance is currently common among all types of antimalarial drugs, apart from artemisinins.

In the past, Europe and North America were victimized by malaria, but now it is non-existent in those regions.

Malaria was one of the diseases that contributed to the Roman Empire’s decline, where it was called “Roman Fever.” The colonial slave trade largely contributed to the spread of the illness to the Americas.


9. Yellow Fever

Yellow fever was introduced into the Western world in the 1600s through the slave trade. Numerous yellow fever epidemics killed thousands in the Western hemisphere over three and a half centuries. One of the biggest yellow fever epidemics occurred in 1793 in the USA cities of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.

During the colonial era, West Africa was regularly referred to as “the white man’s grave” due to the prevalence of malaria and yellow fever.



The HIV/AIDS pandemic started with sickness, fear, and fatalities as the world faced the threat of a new, mysterious virus. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is in two types: HIV-1 and HIV-2, and it is responsible for AIDS.

The HIV-1 type is more virulent, easy to transmit, and has a close relation to the virus in chimpanzees from Central Africa. HIV-2 is not as transmittable as HIV-1 and is widely confined to the West African region. It is closely related to the virus of the sooty mangabey, an Old World monkey from Senegal, Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone.

Researchers say that HIV is a mutation of the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which was transmitted from non-human primates to man. The hunter or bushmeat theory is the most plausible explanation for the transmission of the virus across two different species. Under this theory, it is believed that the virus moved from a non-human primate to man when a hunter was bitten or cut while handling the meat of the animal.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic of 1981 was characterized by fever, headache, and swollen lymph nodes. The virus destroyed t-cells and was widely transmitted through blood, and sexual intercourse.

HIV has killed at least 35 million people since its discovery in 1981. However, the death toll has been profoundly reduced after the invention of antiretroviral therapy.


11. 2009 H1N1 Flu Pandemic

The H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) was originally detected in Mexico before it spread to the US. It resulted in the deaths of between 151,700 and 575,400 people across the world, with the highest fatalities in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico.

Another version of the H1N1 virus was seen in the flu pandemic of 1981 that killed 2% of the world’s population.

Swine flu symptoms included fever, cough, chills, diarrhea, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, shortness of breath, and muscle aches.


12. 2019 Coronavirus (COVID-19)

The most recent disease pandemic is the 2019 coronavirus, which started in Wuhan, China. The World Health Organization describes coronaviruses as a huge family of viruses that inflict illnesses like the common cold, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

COVID-19 is a new strain that had never been seen in human beings before. The coronavirus disease is zoonotic, which means that it is passed on between animals and human beings. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome has been shown to originate from civet cats before it reached humans, while the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome came from dromedary camels.

Infected COVID-19 patients display symptoms of fever, shortness of breath, respiratory problems, and coughing. More advanced cases result in pneumonia, acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and death.

The coronavirus is widely controlled by regular hand washing, cooking meat and eggs thoroughly, and covering the nose and mouth while coughing or sneezing.

By 10 August 2021, COVID-19 had caused over 4.3 million deaths, but thankfully, over 183.6 million victims had been able to recover successfully.

As soon as the pandemic started, scientists went to work to try and find a cure for the virus that had brought immense stress to the world. Fortunately, their efforts were fruitful, as several Covid-19 vaccines were created and administered to people across the world.

Biblical Perspective on Human Disasters

From a certain Judeo-Christian viewpoint, some disasters appear to be a punishment from God for human sinfulness.

If you go back to the Biblical era, in the story of Noah, God sent a flood that wiped out most of the human race for their sinful ways. At another time, it was said that the people living in Sodom and Gomorrah were punished severely with brimstone and fire for their acts of homosexuality.

Additionally, when Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites out of Egypt, the nation was punished with 10 plagues. Also, after worshiping a false god in the desert, the whole generation of Israelites that exited Egypt during the Exodus died in the desert. The only ones who did not die were Joshua and Caleb.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Alice Njambi


Alice Njambi (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on March 24, 2020:

Thanks for the compliment JC Scull

JC Scull on March 24, 2020:

Excellent article!!!

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