Major Pandemics in History: Compared to Coronavirus

Many media outlets have been referring to the coronavirus outbreak as a “modern plague.” It feels like it is considering its 2020, and we can’t go to work, school, and are possibly quarantined. However, the COVID-19 virus is nothing compared to other pandemics or plague outbreaks throughout history. For example, the Black Plague wiped out half of Europe’s population, and the coronavirus has so far reached a death toll of more than 1,774,013 globally.

Medical Diseases Smallpox laboratory assistants are wearing full-face masks and sealing up smallpox vaccines. / A man wearing a protective face mask leaving McDonald’s in London carrying takeaway.

Photo by Associated Newspapers, Shutterstock / Vianney Le Caer, Shutterstock

We live in a world with so much technological and medical advancement that it almost feels unreal to be in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic. Nowadays, we have sanitary homes, clean water, and access to antibiotics and medical care. But there was a time before any of that existed. I’m going to take you through some of the most significant pandemics of all time. After explaining the outbreaks in detail, I will compare them to coronavirus, and maybe it will help reduce the panic. At the very least, you will be thankful you weren’t around during a real plague outbreak.

The article was last updated: 10/28/2020

Plague of Justinian: 541-542

The Bubonic Plague is a disease carried by rodents and typically transfers to humans through fleas. This disease is common in rodent filled urban areas known as ‘plague focus’ or ‘plague reservoir.’ The Plague typically only spreads to humans if rodents are living in human habitation.

The painting by French artist Josse Lieferinxe at the end of the 15th Century with St. Sebastian praying for protection while people are stricken with the Plague.

The painting by French artist Josse Lieferinxe at the end of the 15th Century with St. Sebastian was praying for protection while people are stricken with the Plague. Source: The Walters Art Museum

It takes about 14 days for the Plague to kill the contaminated rats making it less likely for fleas to gather; therefore, the rats need a new host. After three days of starving, the dying rats turn to humans. It takes 3-5 days for people to experience symptoms and get sick, and after another 3-5 days, 80% of people with the disease die. Therefore, from the introduction of the Plague to the rat colony, it takes about 23 days on average for the first person to die.

Plague of Justinian

The Plague of Justinian took place all the way back in the year 541-542. At the time, people were living in urban areas alongside animals, which is typically how the disease starts and spreads. This unsanitary lifestyle attracted many diseases, but it is believed that the Plague of Justinian killed about half of Europe’s population at the time (about 50 million people).

This woodblock print from Germany in the late 15th Century is meant to show doctors how to lance a bubo, which was thought to be how to get rid of the Plague.

This woodblock print from Germany in the late 15th Century is meant to show doctors how to lance a bubo, which was thought to be how to get rid of the Plague. Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

It severely affected the Byzantine Empire, specifically its capital, Constantinople, where the disease wiped out a quarter of the population. It also spread to the Sasanian Empire around the entire Mediterranean Sea. The ports were a perfect breeding location for the disease, and rats carrying fleas with the Plague were moved on merchant ships- ultimately spreading the disease to more locations.

The Black Death 1346-1353

The Black Death was one of the most devastating catastrophes in human history. From 1346 to 1353, the Bubonic Plague hit Europe, Africa, and Asia, killing between an estimated 75 and 200 million people. The Plague was believed to have originated in China and most likely spread through fleas on rats.

The Triumph of Death by Peter Bruegel the Elder.

The Triumph of Death by Peter Bruegel the Elder. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Within just a few months, the deathly Plague killed 60% of Florence’s population, and about the same proportion died in Siena. The Bubonic Plague is a disease stemming from the bacterium Yersinia Pestis that spread among rodents living in great numbers. The Black Death was the most deadly outbreak of the bubonic plague in history.

The Black Death

The Black Death was caused by the Bubonic Plague- the same disease that killed approximately 50 million during the Plague of Justinian. However, during the Black Death, the disease killed up to 200 million people from 1346-1353 during its peak in Europe. The last major epidemic of the Bubonic Plague called the Great Plague that took place in England in 1665.

Painting titled “The Triumph of Death” of death depicted riding a skeleton horse, shooting his arrow at the young.

Photo by Universal History Archive / Shutterstock

The Great Plague killed over 100,000 people within 18 months; at the time, it was a quarter of London’s population. That is obviously devastating but not nearly as severe as the millions estimated to die during the Black Death. Thankfully, the disease is no longer a major health issue, although there are some parts of the world where it still exists.

Coronavirus as a Modern Plague

As we mentioned, the Bubonic Plague comes as a result of rodents living alongside humans, which is common in China. As far as we know, the Black Death originated in China before becoming a global pandemic, just like Coronavirus (COVID-19). The Bubonic Plague wiped out millions, and according to the World Health Organization, coronavirus killed more than 1,774,013 people word wide.

A photograph of an empty New York City Grand Central Station.

Photo by Mychal Watts / Shutterstock

The similarities between the two pandemics doesn’t lie in the illness or fatality rate. Instead, it has more to do with social consequences. First of all, then and now, certain ethnic groups are blamed for the outbreaks. And just like coronavirus, the plague outbreaks led to enforced quarantine to keep the disease from spreading. In fact, the Black Death invented quarantine.

Small Pox: 1700

Smallpox made its way to North America back in the 1600s. Symptoms of the disease included high fever, chills, rashes, and severe back pain. It is believed that the disease started in the Northeast and ended up killing entire native tribes, and the Native American population dropped by an astonishing 70 percent.

An advice pamphlet on preventing the Plague and other ailments dated 1641.

An advice pamphlet on preventing the Plague and other ailments dated 1641. Photo by Universal History Archive / UIG / Shutterstock

In the 1770s, an English physician named Edward Jenner developed a vaccine for cowpox. This innovation helped the body become immune to smallpox without actually causing the disease. In 1972, there was a major vaccine initiative wiping out smallpox from the United States. In 1721, 4,889 Bostonians suffered from the disease, but only 844 died from it. Nowadays, the vaccine is no longer necessary.

Smallpox

Smallpox was considered an endemic in places such as Europe, Asia, and Arabia for centuries. Three out of ten people who were infected died, and the rest were left with scars. The death in the Old World was nothing in comparison to the devastation that came over the Native populations in the New World when the first European explorers arrived with the virus in the 15th Century.

An illustration of The Hampstead Hospital, which was one of the four fever and Smallpox hospitals from 1870 built to help with the pandemic.

The Hampstead Hospital, which was one of the four fever and Smallpox hospitals from 1870 built to help with the pandemic. Photo by Historia / Shutterstock

After humans suffered from the disease for centuries, smallpox became the first virus epidemic to come to an end with a vaccine. Edward Jenner found that milkmaids infected with cowpox- a milder virus, were immune to smallpox. The physician famously injected his nine-year-old son with cowpox and then exposed him to the smallpox virus. This was a risky move, but his son didn’t suffer for smallpox, so the vaccine worked.

Smallpox VS. Coronavirus

There is a huge difference between COVID-19 and smallpox. Smallpox is in a category of diseases called anthropometry, meaning they can only be transmitted from human to human. In contrast, coronavirus is considered a zoonotic disease, which means it gets passed to humans from an animal host (evidence suggests the source may have been bats).

A Daily Mail Journalist, Jerry Brown, getting vaccinated at the London Airport in 1965.

Photo by Anthony Wallace / Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

As we know, there is no vaccine available for coronavirus (at the moment), and that was the situation with smallpox for a long time. Back in the 1700s, medical research wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is now, but finally, the first-ever vaccine was created, and the disease essentially disappeared. In order to make coronavirus extinct, we would have to vaccinate both humans and animals.

Yellow fever from the Caribbean: 1793

There was a time when Philadelphia was the capital of the nation and had the busiest port. One summer, people trying to escape the yellow fever epidemic in the Caribbean Islands sailed in, bringing the disease with them. Symptoms of the disease include fever, bloody vomiting, loss of appetite, muscle pain, nausea, and causes the skin to turn yellow- which is how the disease got its name.

The proclamation issued by Governor George Clinton of New York in response to the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia requiring all vessels arriving from there to be quarantined.

The proclamation issued by Governor George Clinton of New York in response to the yellow fever epidemic. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Five thousand people were listed on the registry of yellow fever deaths just between August 1st and November 9th, 1793. With thousands dead within three months, 17,000 residents left the city in fear of catching the deathly illness. A vaccine was created and licensed by 1953. One vaccine is enough and is recommended for everyone over nine months old, especially if you live (or travel) in high-risk areas.

Yellow Fever

It is likely that mosquitos are how the disease is spread, specifically in countries like Central and South America, and if Africa. Wiping them out has successfully helped controlling yellow fever. While there is still no cure for the disease, if you are infected by the disease and survive, your body will be immune forever, and you won’t be able to get it again.

Fumigation of mosquito-infested sheds in New Orleans to combat yellow fever in 1905.

Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

The viral disease doesn’t normally last long. Symptoms usually improve within five days. Unfortunately, within just one day of feeling better, 15 percent of the infected people get their fever back, suffer abdominal pain, and then the liver damage begins- which is what causes the skin to turn yellow. Bleeding and kidney problems also increase if the fever returns.

Coronavirus Won’t Leave with the Mosquitos

During the summer of 1793, Philadelphia experienced the Yellow fever epidemic; the disease was carried and spread through mosquitos. Once winter rolled around and the mosquitos died out, the pandemic stopped, but 5,000 people had already died by the point. Unfortunately, coronavirus won’t die out with the mosquitos.

Environment workers in full gear disinfect the entrance of the Hotel Colon in Spain.

Photo by AFP7 / Shutterstock

Given the different times, and different symptoms, there aren’t many similarities between yellow fever and coronavirus, but we can compare the pandemics. Both illnesses caused panic- mainly due to a lack of information. Back then, there was no viral way to receive information about the disease, and today, we have a lot of access to false information. Thousands of people fled Philadelphia to due fear of contracting yellow fever, and now with corona, thousands of people are quarantined so that the virus won’t spread.

Third Cholera Pandemic: 1852-1860

So, what exactly is Cholera? It’s an infectious disease that causes severe diarrhea. I know this sounds gross, but this is an extremely serious condition and can be fatal if left untreated. It is now known as an ancient problem because it’s commonly spread during war, famine, and places with poor sanitation. It is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholera (typically found in contaminated food or water).

Patients and nurses are getting some air on the grounds of the Hospital de Lariboisiere, one of the hospitals built following the second cholera pandemic.

Patients and nurses are getting some air on the grounds of the Hospital de Lariboisiere. Photo by Universal History Archive / Shutterstock

There is also some evidence that points to the disease in the ancient world. For example, Hippocrates- an ancient Greek physician (c.400 BCE) mentions it. Later, a Roman physician named Galen (c. 200 CE) also described an illness that sounds like a cholera outbreak. The main symptom of the disease is dehydration. The first two big outbreaks were devastating, but the third was much worse.

Third Cholera Pandemic

The third Cholera pandemic in the 19th Century was considered the deadliest. The outbreak began in 1852 and lasted up until 1860. Just like the first and second cholera pandemics, the Third also originated in India. It then continued to spread from the Ganges River Delta before reaching Asia Europe, North America, and Africa, resulting in the deaths of over a million people.

An illustration of a man being protected against Cholera carrying herbs and dressed in a protective suit made of rubber, copper, and camphor-soaked fabric in 1831.

A man being protected against Cholera carrying herbs and dressed in a protective suit made of rubber, copper, and camphor-soaked fabric in 1831. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

John Snow was a British physician who was tracking Cholera cases while he was working in a poor area of London. He was the one who eventually discovered that the disease came from contaminated water. Sadly, 1854- the same year Snow made this discovery, turned out to be the worst year for the pandemic. Twenty-three thousand lost their lives due to Cholera in Britain.

Sixth Cholera Pandemic: 1899-1930

From the 19th Century to 1930, there were 27 Cholera breakouts during the hajj at Mecca. The sixth Cholera pandemic started off in India and killed more than 800,000 people before spreading to the Middle East, Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Russia. This was also the last time that there was a Cholera outbreak in the United States (1910-1911).

A photograph is showing the authorities inspecting the canal barges in London after the outbreak of Cholera in certain countries.

A photograph is showing the authorities inspecting the canal barges in London after the outbreak of Cholera in certain countries. Photo by Historia / Shutterstock

Thankfully, the American health authorities learned from the past and weren’t taking any chances. They quickly made a decision to isolate everyone who was infected. Ultimately, there were only 11 deaths in the U.S. from the Sixth Cholera pandemic. By 1923, there was a dramatic drop in cases of Cholera. However, in India, it was still a constant.

Sixth Cholera Pandemic

The Sixth Cholera outbreak spread to the United States when infected people from Naples came to New York City on the steamship Moltke. Anyone who was infected was isolated in a quarantine facility built in the 19th Century in Swinburne Island. One of the eleven people who died in the United States from the Sixth Cholera outbreak was a health care worker at the hospital.

Dr. Jenkins, Dr. Barbara Anderson, Dr. Indu Nagpual, and Dr. James are flying out to Calcutta with anti-cholera vaccines during the Pakistan Cholera Outbreak in the 1970s.

Photo by Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

Quarantine was certainly the best decision considering the same exact infection caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in India. In the past 200 years, a total of seven Cholera pandemics happened. The Seventh one originated in Indonesia in 1961. Between 1991 and 1994, there were reported outbreaks in South America, and even more recently is the 2016-20 Yemen Cholera outbreak.

Corona and Cholera Economy Effect

As we mentioned, Cholera is common in unsanitary locations and typically comes from contaminated food and water. At the time, New York City had a quarter-million residents and had one of the world busiest ports. The disease caused panic leading to havoc on the “great commercial mart’s economy. Basically, the pandemic brought the city’s businesses to a halt.

A photograph of Times Square empty on March 23rd, 2020.

A photograph of Times Square empty on March 23rd, 2020. Photo by Mychal Watts / Shutterstock

Due to sanitary advancements, the chances of a Cholera outbreak in America is extremely low. However, coronavirus is also causing severe financial disruption. With many cities quarantining their residents, some of the biggest businesses have closed their offices and encourage employees to work from home. It’s not looking good. According to Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell, “the virus and the measures that are being taken to contain it will surely weigh on economic activity, both here and abroad, for some times.”

Scarlet fever also came in waves: 1858

Scarlet fever is a bacterial infection, also known as Scarlatina. Chances of developing it increase after strep throat because it comes from the same bacteria. Similarly to Cholera, scarlet fever epidemics came in waves. The main symptom of the disease is a red rash covering almost the entire body. It almost always comes with a high fever and sore throat.

A woman is lying in bed with two men, a woman, and a dog surrounding her bedside.

Photo by Universal History / UIG / Shutterstock

The red rash wasn’t just a bunch of bumps that go away within a few days. This unique rash felt like sandpaper and looks like a sunburn- if you apply pressure to it, the skin will turn white. It usually begins on the face and neck before spreading to the arms and legs. Another symptom is a Strawberry tongue. This usually happens early in the disease and means that the tongue will look bumpy and covered with a white coating.

Scarlet Fever

Sadly, in the midst of the 1858 epidemic, 95% of the people who caught Scarlet fever were children. It was extremely common in kids between the ages of 5 and 15 and was once considered a dangerous childhood illness. Thankfully, it’s less threatening today with antibiotic treatments. However, if left untreated, it can lead to more serious conditions such as harming the heart or liver.

An ad for Wilfing’s Formamint, the germ-killing throat tablet with information on why you catch a sore throat and how to cure and prevent it from 1913.

Photo by Historia / Shutterstock

Some studies show that the decline of Scarlet fever was due to improved nutrition, but more recent research discovered the decline of the disease was more likely due to improvements in public health and sanitation. However, it should be noted that although scarlet fever isn’t nearly as common as it used to be, it’s still possible for a child to contrast it.

Coronavirus is not a Childhood Illness

Scarlet fever is a bacterial infection leading to physical symptoms, including red and irritating skin, and a bumpy tongue. Coronavirus is a virus and features flu-like symptoms, including fever and a dry cough. Although scarlet fever is almost always accompanied by a cough, there don’t seem to be many similarities between these two pandemics.

A masked and gloved shopper is walking through Wales in March 2020.

Photo by Dimitris Legakis / Shutterstock

Scarlet fever was a common childhood disease that proved to be dangerous. As we know, coronavirus is believed to be fatal, but not in healthy people (between the ages of 5-65). However, the similarity between these two pandemics is that they are both highly contagious and transmitted through touch. That’s what lead to the outbreaks and caused both illnesses to spread quickly. People quarantined themselves during scarlet fever outbreaks just like now with corona.

“Typhoid Mary”: 1906-1907

One of the largest typhoid fever epidemics broke out in New York between 1906 and 1907. Mary Mallon, who was known as “Typhoid Mary,” was a famous carrier of the bacterium. Mary was the source of numerous outbreaks in Long Island and New York City between 1900 and 1907. During her time as a cook, she allegedly spread the disease to 122 New Yorkers. About five of them died.

An illustration of Typhoid Mary, Mary Mallon, cooking eggs.

Photo by Historia / Shutterstock

Medical testing found that Mary Mallon was a healthy carrier of Typhoid fever. Symptoms include sickness and red spots covering the chest to the abdomen. In 1911, a vaccine was created, and by 1948 effective antibiotic treatments were available. Today typhoid fever is extremely rare but can be transmitted but coming in direct contact with someone who is infected or by consuming contaminated water or food.

“Typhoid Mary”

In 1883, Mary immigrated to the United States and worked as a cook. It isn’t clear when exactly she contracted the disease, but from 1900-1907, about two dozen people caught typhoid fever in Long Island and New York City, in the houses where Mary worked. The illness occurred shortly after Mary started working at the houses, and the disease was ultimately traced to her.

A guard in Plymouth, PA, was warning people passing by not to approach the homes of people stricken with Typhoid in 1885.

A guard in Plymouth, PA, was warning people passing by not to approach the homes of people stricken with Typhoid in 1885. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

In 1906, six out of 11 people living in a house where Mary worked were sick with Typhoid. There was an investigation into the outbreak, which concluded that it came as a result of consuming contaminated water. Mary was eventually linked to all 22 cases of the fever that were recorded in the New York City and Long Island area.

Typhoid Fever

Years later, an epidemic broke out in New Jersey and at the Sloane Maternity hospital in Manhattan, New York. It turned out; Mary worked as a cook in both places. Mary claimed that she was born in the United States, but it was later discovered that she was an immigrant. Fifty-one cases of the disease and three deaths were directly attributed to her. The rest of the cases were spread by people she gave the disease too. Mary herself was immune to Typhoid.

Students of the U.S. Army Medical School were working on a typhoid vaccine in 1917.

Students of the U.S. Army Medical School were working on a typhoid vaccine in 1917. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

She was finally found in a suburban home in Westchester county New York and was taken to North Brother Island, where she stayed for the rest of her life. Annually, 10,771 people lost their lives due to Typhoid fever.

Corona is Also Contagious

The Typhoid fever epidemic was a strange one. One person seemingly had it and spread it to people she came in close contact with. Specifically, people living in the houses she worked at. It’s rare for just one person to continuously spread a disease. With over 100 cases of the fever (and a few fatalities), it was considered a pandemic.

A person is wearing a cereal box as a face mask and a garbage bag over their sweater while walking home from the grocery store in London, March 2020.

A person is returning from the grocery store with homemade protective gear in March 2020. Photo by Beretta / Sims / Shutterstock

Similarly to corona, the pandemic came from fear. The outbreaks came out of nowhere, and nobody knew how to respond. Typhoid fever is contagious and could be easily transmitted if you come in direct contact with someone who has it. With coronavirus, we don’t necessarily need to come in close contact with the infected person. Coronavirus is spread by touch, so the virus can be transmitted by simply touching the same doorknob as someone with the virus.

“Asiatic flu” or the “Russian flu”: 1889

The 1889-1890 flu pandemic was killing people all over the world. It was called the “Asiatic flu” or the “Russian flu” and was believed to be an outbreak of the influenza A virus subtype H2N2. However, recent research shows that it was actually the Influenza A virus subtype, H3N8. In May 1889, the first three cases of the virus were found in three different locations, Bukhara in Central Asia, Greenland, and Athabasca, in northwestern Canada.

A scientist for the World Health Organization injecting a specimen into an egg and monitoring the growth of the influenza virus to help fight the epidemic.

A scientist for the World Health Organization injecting a specimen into an egg and monitoring the growth of the influenza virus to help fight the epidemic. Photo by Universal History Archive / Shutterstock

In the 19th Century, the population grew specifically in urban areas, allowing the virus to spread, before becoming a global outbreak. This Asiatic flu was the first flu pandemic in the age of bacteriology, and a lot was learned from it. Sadly, it took the lives of over one million people.

“Asiatic Flu” or the “Russian Flu”

The largest 19th century pandemic in Europe most likely started in November or December of 1889, as the first victims of the disease were reported in 1889, and it worried the city of St. Petersburg. It received the name “Russian influenza” because it spread all over Europe, starting from the east. Not to be confused with the 1977 flu epidemic, which was also called the Russian flu.

A typist is wearing a mask at her typewriter during the Influenza epidemic.

A typist is wearing a mask at her typewriter during the Influenza epidemic. Photo by Nara Archives / Shutterstock

What’s historically interesting about this flu was that during this time, the media just gained access to the telegraph, allowing newspapers to be printed in real-time. This obviously caused panic. Western Europe cities were the first to hear the news about the epidemic then Berlin, and eventually, the information got to Paris, Vienna, London, and Madrid.

Fake News, Don’t Panic

Flu pandemics are common and usually seasonal, but some are more severe. During the 1889 flu epidemic, The Times Newspaper was where everyone found out information. They were the first source that reported on the pandemic, and it didn’t take long for the information (and the flu) to spread. Just like now, with coronavirus, the widespread news has been causing global fear, but not enough information to calm our anxiety.

Cars lined up circling around McDonald’s drive-thru twice in the UK in March 2020.

Cars lined up circling around McDonald’s drive-thru twice in the UK in March 2020. Photo by Gareth Everett / Huw Evans / Shutterstock

That’s why if you go to Walmart, there is nothing left on the shelves. People are panicking. The “Asiatic flu” in particular mostly killed people over the age of 65 and under the age of 5. Coronavirus is also known to be more dangerous when it comes to those age groups. With corona having flu-like symptoms, these two pandemics seem similar. However, this flu ultimately killed a million people, and hopefully, that won’t be the case with coronavirus.

Spanish flu: 1918

Despite its name, this mutating influenza virus doesn’t actually come from Spain. It annually circles the globe, but in 1918, it really infected the United States. It’s unclear where it originated, but reports say the cause was the H1N1 virus and came from a bird. One-third of the population (roughly 500 million people) were estimated to be infected.

A warehouse which was converted into quarantine beds for patients suffering from the 1918 flu epidemic.

A warehouse which was converted into quarantine beds for patients suffering from the 1918 flu epidemic. Photo by Universal History Archives / Shutterstock

It killed approximately 650,000 people in the United States and at least 50 million people worldwide- in the first 25 weeks alone. Severe cases of the flu started to decline after World War 1. It retuned as the Asian flu in 1957 (which we’ll get to that later), and before vaccines were available, the virus caused more than 1,774,013 deaths.

The Spanish Flu

Mortality was high in people younger than five and older and 65. However, a unique feature of this pandemic was that there was also a high death rate in healthy people aged between 20 and 40. The H1N1 virus was evaluated and synthesized in 1918, but with a lack of resources, it wasn’t well understood.

A letter carrier in New York City was wearing a mask to avoid catching influenza on October 16th, 1918.

Photo by Courtesy Everett Collection / Shutterstock

With no antibiotics or vaccines, control efforts were limited to good personal hygiene, limited public gatherings, and some people went as far as to isolate or quarantine themselves. At the time, people were suggested to wear masks and drink oil as a cure. Unfortunately, neither of those were effective. Now that we have more information, treatments include antiviral medication, bed rest, and fluids.

Coronavirus Won’t Kill Every Age Group

As we mentioned, coronavirus and the “Asiatic flu” have some comparisons, but that’s not the case with the Spanish flu. Well, they have similar symptoms, but that’s about it. First of all, one-third of the entire world’s population was infected with the Spanish flu, and 50 million people lost their lives due to this disease.

A girl standing outside of a locked-up playground in March 2020.

Photo by Andrew McCaren / LNP / Shutterstock

This flu also killed children. Most of the time, the flu tends to affect older people and babies. But in the Spanish Flu pandemic, a big percentage of the people dying were healthy and between the ages of 20 and 40. Fatality in healthy individuals is rare in coronavirus and most other flus. Thankfully, corona isn’t expected to affect young, healthy individuals the way the Spanish flu did.

Asian Flu: 1956-1958

In 1918, the Spanish Flu infected one-third of the world’s population; and in 1956, the Asian flu would strike. It was an outbreak of Influenza A (an H2N2 subtype). It originated in 1956 and lasted tasted two years before the pandemic finally ended in 1958. The flu quickly spread from the Chinese province of Guizhou to Honk Kong, Singapore, and the United States.

A nurse at Montefiore Hospital receiving a flu vaccination in 1957.

A nurse at Montefiore Hospital receiving a flu vaccination in 1957. Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

There are various sources giving different reports about how many people died due to this virus. However, according to the World Health Organization, throughout its two-year spree, the Asian flu caused an estimated 69,800 deaths in the U.S. alone and 2 million worldwide.

Asian Flu

Apparently, the Asian flu originated from a mutation in wild ducks, combined with a pre-existing human strain of influenza. Symptoms of the Asian flu varied from a slight fever and minor cough to pneumonia. It was believed that the people who were unaffected by this flu had protective antibodies to other strains of influenza. Kind of like a vaccine, making them immune to the virus.

A photograph of the ‘Britain Flu Epidemic’ girls working at the London Emergency Bed Centre in London in 1969.

A photograph of the ‘Britain Flu Epidemic’ girls working at the London Emergency Bed Centre in London in 1969. Photo by Ronald Fortune / Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

The death rates dropped significantly when an H2N2 vaccine was introduced in 1957, and subsequently, the pandemic slowed down. Antibiotics were also available to treat secondary infections. By 1968, the H2N2 virus seemingly disappeared from the human population, and it’s believed to be extinct. Vials of H2N2 influenza remain n laboratories for research purposes.

Coronavirus is not as Deadly

The Asian flu was another flu pandemic that infected millions of people all over the globe. Unlike the Spanish flu, the Asian flu didn’t have a high mortality rate in healthy young, healthy people, but that’s not the only similarity it has to coronavirus. For starters, the Asian flu was a global epidemic, just like coronavirus.

A man is wearing a protective face mask on an empty train in France, March 2020.

A man is wearing a protective face mask on an empty train in France, March 2020. Photo by Alfonso Jimenez / Shutterstock

They also both originated from animals, the Asian flu came from wild ducks, and coronavirus is believed to have come from bats. Also, both illnesses have symptoms, including fever, cough, and pneumonia. We are currently in the midst of coronavirus pandemic, but with all the technological advancements, the likelihood of millions of people losing their lives from coronavirus as they did from the Asian flu is low.

Hong Kong Flu: 1968

In 1968, there was a Category 2 Flu pandemic, also known as “The Hong Kong Flu.” It was caused by the H3N2 strain of the Influenza A virus. It’s basically a genetic offshoot of the H2N2 subtype. The first reported incident was discovered in 1968 in Hong Kong. Only 17 days later, there were outbreaks in Singapore and Vietnam.

A government doctor and nurse cope with a steady stream of patients during the 1969 influenza epidemic in Hong Kong.

A government doctor and nurse cope with a steady stream of patients during the 1969 influenza epidemic in Hong Kong. Source: scmp.com

After only three months, the virus spread to India, The Philippines, Europe, Australia, and the United States, making it a global pandemic. Luckily, the 1968 outbreak had a lower mortality rate than the previous ones. Sadly, it still led to the death of over 1 million people. Five hundred thousand of those deaths were in Hong Kong residents (15% of their population at the time).

Hong Kong Flu

Although the first documented case of the Hong Kong flu was in Hong Kong, reports show that it originated in China. It killed 100,000 people in the United States, which was significantly less than the previous outbreaks; however, it was the third flu pandemic to take place in the 20th Century. Most of the mortalities from this specific flu were in individuals over the age of 65.

Patients were crowding the waiting hall of a clinic on Hong Kong Island during the influenza epidemic in July 1968.

Patients were crowding the waiting hall of a clinic on Hong Kong Island during the influenza epidemic in July 1968. Source: scmp.com

The H3N2 virus is still around and circulates as a season influenza A virus. However, the H3N2 virus undergoes regular “antigenic drift.” This is when influenza changes or mutates, changing the surface proteins of the virus. The proteins are antigens, which means they are recognized by the immune system and help block the infection.

Corona Harms the Elderly

Just like coronavirus, the Hong Kong flu originated in China and only took a few months to turn into a global pandemic. The flu ended up killing a lot fewer people than the previous outbreaks. – Still, 100,000 people ultimately lost their lives due to the outbreak in the United States. Most of the mortality were in people over the age of 65.

A stallholder and a customer both wearing face masks at the Nomentana Market in Rome.

A stallholder and a customer both wearing face masks at the Nomentana Market in Rome. Photo by Steve Bisgrove / Shutterstock

As we know, coronavirus is mostly fatal in high-risk patience or adults over the age of 65. With sanitary and medical advancements, it’s hard to believe that coronavirus will kill that many people. As of right now, more than 1,774,013 people died from coronavirus worldwide. The fatality rate isn’t meant to significantly increase, but now that we are at the peak of the pandemic, researchers claim the virus will continue to spread before it gets better.

HIV/AIDS Pandemic: 1981 (Peak 2005-2012)

The epidemic we know as HIV/AIDS was identified in 1976 in the Democratic Republic. It wasn’t documented until 1981 and was known as a rare lung infection. Now we have more information and understand that HIV damages the immune system and makes it difficult for the body to fight off infections.

HIV/AIDs ribbons, pins, and badges.

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Killing more than 36 million people worldwide, HIV/AIDS proved to be a global pandemic. HIV is commonly transmitted through sexual intercourse but can also be spread through blood and other bodily fluids. Sadly, if untreated, a pregnant mother can pass it on to her unborn baby. There are currently between 31 and 35 million people living with the virus; most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa- There 5% of the population is infected, about 21 million people.

HIV/AIDS Pandemic

AIDS is the final stage of HIV, and in the United States, it’s the 6th leading cause of death among people between the ages of 25 and 44. In more recent years, treatments developed as awareness grew. There is still no cure for HIV, but it is now manageable, and many people who have the infection can go on to lead productive lives. The Global deaths from HIV/AIDS eventually dropped from 2.2 million to 1.6 million, between 2005 and 2012.

A health care worker directs a patient at a walk-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal.

Photo by Canadian Press / Shutterstock

There are some safety measures you can take in order to reduce your risk of catching the infection, such as having protected sex and making sure your needles are clean and sterilized. For emergencies, there is a new antiretroviral medicine called PEP (Post-exposure prophylaxis), and if taken within 72 hours, it prevents HIV from developing.

Coronavirus is Not HIV

In the 1980s, the HIV epidemic made waves and caused immense fear throughout the nation. Since it was known as a sexually transmitted infection, the disease had a negative stigma associated with it. Although this was a fairly recent pandemic, people did not understand the disease at all. Similarly to coronavirus, people walked around wearing gloves, but we now know HIV isn’t transmitted by touch.

A woman is lying across a bench in Trafalgar Square in London on her phone wearing a protective face mask in March 2020.

Source: Shutterstock

But still, at the time, even touching someone with HIV was a cause for concern. Princess Diana made headlines when she was photographed shaking hands with HIV patients. The similarity between pandemics is the lack of information. But that’s about it. Everything else is different, considering one is transmitted by touch, and the other is transferred by sexual intercourse.

Swine Flu: 2009

It was just over a decade ago when the world experienced the swine flu pandemic. From April 2009 and April 2010, 1.4 billion people around the globe were infected with swine flu, and between 151,700 and 575,400 of them were killed. The CDC reported that the virus was first discovered in the United States and quickly spread around the nation and the world.

An intensive care unit where a patient is being treated for the swine flu.

Photo by Susannah Ireland / Shutterstock

In America alone, The CDC estimated that Swine flu infected 100 million people, killed 75,000 of them, and sent 936,000 to the hospital. Swine flu technically refers to influenza in pigs. Under occasional circumstances, pigs can spread influenza viruses to humans. Mainly to veterinarians and hog farmers. Because of the number of people who got sick that year, the H1H1 virus (Swine flu) was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.

Swine Flu Vs Coronavirus

The Swine flu pandemic just happened about ten years ago, so most of us remember it. However I wasn’t quarantined, I didn’t stock up on food, and I actually got swine flu! Thankfully, I was 18 years old and healthy at the time, so like the regular flu, I spent three days in bed, and then I was fine. Of course, not everyone is as lucky as I was, considering swine flu did kill people.

A White House nurse prepared to give President Obama the H1N1 vaccine in 2009.

Source: Shutterstock

But as someone who remembers both of these pandemics, the panic surrounding coronavirus is much worse. Swine flu felt different. The fact that its 2020 and schools are closed, the NBA is canceled, and people can’t even go to work because of coronavirus, which makes the outbreak seem much scarier than the swine flu ever did.

Wash Your Hands

Right now, we are at the peak of the coronavirus, and nobody really knows what’s going to happen. Is it possible that coronavirus will disappear? Will return in waves like smallpox or Cholera? Will we all just get vaccinated and call it a day? At this point, anything is possible. Make sure to keep safe. And remember, coronavirus is transmitted through touch, so wash your hands as often as possible.

A window display on Oxford Street in London with “Come in and wash your hands for free” written on it, and a woman is wearing a protective face mask outside.

Photo by Dinendra Haria / LNP / Shutterstock

The Associate Dean of Global Health Sciences at the University of California’s Department of Medicine, Steffani Strathdee, said, “the 2009 H1N1 pandemic should have been a warning sign. It didn’t end up being a pandemic that killed millions of people as we feared it would, but it should have been a wakeup call. By all serious estimates, COVID-19 is going to be a major killer.”

The Race for Finding the Corona Cure.

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