If any event that can potentially lead to an utter extinction of mankind (or turn us into flesh eating zombies) – is a devastating global pandemic . Though cataclysmic pandemics have so far remained confined(thankfully), to the realm of alternative fiction, our history is replete with numerous such pandemics, which albeit were less severe, left wanton destruction and untold casualties in their wake.
Recently , the outbreak of swine flu, created a worldwide turmoil and paranoia. Pandemics, many believe are nature’s great comeuppance that all processes of globalization are inexorably leading us to. However, with recent advancements in medical science , mankind is better equipped than ever , to combat with this menace, if and when it arises.
But we were always not so technologically and scientifically advanced. Our inadequacies and ignorance were perhaps the major reasons , behind calamities like Black Death, or the Spanish Flu. Let us recount few such disasters that left an indelible mark on history.
Smallpox (430 BC? - 1979)
Despite being completely eradicated , owing to global inoculation initiatives, smallpox remains till date the number one killer, estimated to have accounted for nearly 300 million people, globally in the 20th century alone, most of them being the indigenous tribes of North America.
A disease unique to humans , this contagious disease is caused by either of two virus variants, Variella Major or minor.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century , Smallpox killed nearly 60 million Europeans , including five monarchs. Nearly half of those infected , including a mindblowing 80% of the children under five years of age , succumbed to this disease or eventually turned blind.
As for the New World , the contagion was brought to their shores by the European explorers and Spanish Conquistadors of the Old World. It is widely suspected that smallpox is singularly responsible for wiping out the entire native population of America. Also the fall of the Aztec empire was largely due to the natives contracting this disease from the Spanish. It is said that the smallpox accounted for more Aztec lives than the canons of the Conquistadors.
The menace continued in the 20th century , where smallpox was responsible for nearly 300 million deaths –as per WHO estimate. Thankfully, due to massive global vaccination programs, smallpox became the only hCredit: adduman infectious disease to have been completely wiped out.
The Peloponnesian War Pestilence-The Plague Of Athens
The first documented pandemic in history, occurred during the second year of the Pelponessian War between Athens and Sparta. The devastation wrecked by the plague was vividly described by the historian Thucydides, who himself suffered from the disease but somehow miraculously recovered . Consequently he was able to provide an accurate account of the symptoms of this mysterious malady. Thucydides described the disease as such "People in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath”
The plague ran amok within a crowded, overpopulated city and Athens lost nearly one third of its inhabitants cloisterd within its walls. Beseiged by Spartans, the plague was believed to have entered the city through its major port Pireus, which was its only source for food and supplies. Although the exact nature of the epidemic still remains shrouded in mystery most modern day historians believe that this epidemic contributed majorly to the end of the Golden Age of Greece, even to the subsequent rise of Macedonia and eventually to that of Rome.
The Black Death (1348-1750)
The Black Death or the Black Plague was one of the most deadly and tragic pandemics that manged to alter the course of history. The plague raged in Europe throughout the fourteenth century and continued intermittently globally till the eighteenth century. The pandemic consumed nearly 75 million lives, 20 million of them died in Europe only.
The Black Death was one of the first recorded instances of bubonic plague, whose origin was traced to Central Asia or China. The contagion caused by Yersinia pestis bacterium, was transmitted to Europe through the silk routes, carried by rodents and rats which thrived in large numbers in the merchant ships and vessels or by the marauding Mongol invaders. By conservative estimates the Black Death killed between a third and a two thirds of Europe’s population and sparked a continent wise social, political and religious upheaval, from which Europe took nearly 150 years to fully recuperate.
Although Bubonic Plague was the most common form of plague seen during the Black Death, other forms of plagues, septicemic plague, a form of blood poisoning as well as pneumonic plague which was largely airborne, were also evidenced sporadically. The classic symptoms of the Bubonic Plague were swelling of the lymph nodes, called bulbose which were generally found near the armpits, groin and the neck region. The swellings were excruciatingly painful and bled pus and ooze when opened up. The victim’s skin and underlying tissues got progressively damaged, until black blotches covered his entire body. Generally the victim succumbed within four to seven days of contracting the disease.
The Plague, as mentioned before,spread from Asia through the trade routes, so expectedly it stuck the port cities first, and then got transmitted further via both land and sea. In fact in 2010 a group of researches pinpointed the plague’s origin to Yunnan province in Southwest China
The plague was at its catastrophic best during the fourteenth century, the same black terror is believed to have returned on numerous occassions to haunt Europe, throughout middle ages, till the seventeenth century.
Most historians have attributed the extent of plagues devastation to certain factors which include a stagnation in the knowledge of medical sciences as well as a weakened immune system of the general populace borne out of years of impoverishment.
The impact of this devastating plague on Europe’s history was immense. It ripped apart the very fabric of society and completely altered social structure of medieval Europe. Europe’s population shrank alarmingly, the Catholic Church was dealt a hammer blow and the harmonious atmosphere of peaceful co-existence was irrevocably vitiated. The societal upheaval resulted in a widespread persecution of minorities, including Jews, lepers and foreigners.
The Spanish Flu (1918-1919)
The most devastating epidemic till date , The Spanish Flu or “La Gripe” which stuck in the aftermath of the First World War, managed to kill more people than the Great War itself. Accounting for anywhere between 50 to 100 million lives, within a span of just of two years, “The Spanish Flu” was a global disaster of an epic scale.
It was the fall of 1918. The First World War was in its final throes , with USA jumping on to the fray raising the specter of victory for the Allied Forces against Germany. Deep within the trenches , the soldiers had to endure the most unbearable conditions that life can throw up. Then something menacing erupted in certain pockets of the globe and it wasnot your usually benign influenza virus. The First World War did not create this pandemic , but closed troop quarters and massive troop movement provided a fillip to it transmission as well as augmented mutation. Most people between between the age group of 20 to 40 years fell prey to the disease , which was a bizarre morbidity pattern for an influenza virus since it generally infects young adults and elderly . It infected 28% of all Americans. An estimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza during the pandemic, ten times as many as in the world war. Of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe, half of them fell to the influenza virus and not to the opposition forces. As poignantly noted in the Journal of the American Medical Association final edition of 1918:
"The 1918 has gone: a year momentous as the termination of the most cruel war in the annals of the human race; a year which marked, the end at least for a time, of man's destruction of man; unfortunately a year in which developed a most fatal infectious disease causing the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Medical science for four and one-half years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there. Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all--infectious disease," (12/28/1918)