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10 of the Deadliest Epidemics in American History

The Poorest
10 of the Deadliest Epidemics in American History

Outbreaks. Pandemics. Epidemics. Let’s face it, people are always keeping their eyes on the next big disease threatening to wipe out humanity. With the rise in post-apocalyptic movies and books, it’s no wonder people are focusing their attention on these sorts of things. And even as you read these words, there are at least two outbreaks threatening people in different parts of the world.

The scariest is the current outbreak of Ebola in Guinea, Africa. At the time of writing, 70 people have reportedly died from the disease, known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever. According to the Medecins Sans Frontieres, “If contracted, Ebola is one of the world’s most deadly diseases. It is a highly infectious virus that can kill up to 90 percent of the people who catch it, causing terror among infected communities.” Ebola is spread through both human and animal contact, and is transmitted through blood, secretions, or other bodily fluids. According to National Geographic, part of the reason it’s transmitting from person-to-person is a ritual in some parts of the country where the dead are washed by hand to prepare them for burial. It’s meant to be a loving ritual to send them into the afterlife, but it brings people in contact with infected bodily fluids, which aids in the transmission of the deadly disease.

Currently, there is no treatment or vaccine for Ebola. The virus has already moved from the jungle to the capital city of Conakry, and the country of Senegal has reportedly closed its borders to help contain the outbreak. Hopefully, with help from organizations like Medecins Sans Frontieres, they can get the disease under control and stop the transmission. Of course, the devastating nature of this virus has caught the media’s attention, and it’s something the world will be keeping an eye on to make sure it doesn’t spread even further.

While the chances of Ebola coming over to the U.S. is slim, there is another outbreak currently making the rounds in American cities. Less deadly than Ebola, the measles has had a devastating history in and of itself. Measles is believed to have killed more than 200 million people in the last 150 years, though it was considered to have been eradicated in the 2000s. However, it appears to be back and infecting children in some of the richest parts of the country due to concerns over vaccine risks. While vaccinations are generally mandated by the government in the U.S. and are at least strongly recommended by governments in most other Western countries, some parents are attempting to exempt their children. This means certain diseases may become more prevalent; hopefully though, the measles epidemic is easily contained. The projected death toll, as predicted by the CDC, says that one or two out of every 1,000 children who are infected will likely die from the disease. It may not be as deadly as Ebola, but the death of one child is still too many.

This wouldn’t be the first time a measles epidemic swept through parts of the country, however. And along with measles, America has experienced its share of different epidemics. But through science and medical intervention, many diseases that were once considered deadly and devastating are not even on our radar anymore. That will hopefully one day be the case for Ebola, and other deadly diseases that are still ravaging the world today. While we have the technology, resources and highly-trained individuals to help contain epidemics these days, in the past an outbreak of a disease was catastrophic. These are 10 incidents of the very worst epidemics in America, and the tragic tolls they took. Some more sensitive readers might want to skip the necessarily graphic descriptions of some of these diseases.

10. Smallpox – 1633 – 1782


Smallpox is a disease that’s believed to have been around since 10,000 B.C. and is credited with killing between 400 million to 500 million people throughout history. It is now considered to have been wiped off the planet thanks to inoculations against the disease. Officials believe that any new outbreak would likely signal a case of bioterrorism. However, in the early days of America, smallpox was still a very big problem. It didn’t exist in America until it was brought over by the colonists around 1633. Those who survived the disease had built up a natural immunity, but for those who were never exposed like Native Americans and native-born colonists, the disease proved to be devastating. The disease is thought to have killed more than 145,000 people during a 1770s epidemic. The disease, which is still considered deadly today by the CDC, starts out with flu-like symptoms such as a fever, fatigue, and a rash. The rash, however, changes from flat lesions to pus filled cysts known as pustules which cover the body and even form in the throat. Those who recover are often left with disfiguring scars and potentially even blindness.

9. Measles – 1772 – Present


Measles used to be considered a disease of the past, one that had been mostly eradicated by the year 2000. But recently, it’s been found to be cropping up more and more because of fears surrounding the perceived risks of vaccination. The disease has been around for a very long time, possibly since the 9th century. To give you an idea of the devastation measles wrought in the past, in the year 1772 nine hundred children from Charleston, SC died after an outbreak. Children weren’t the only ones at risk, either. 5,000 soldiers during the Civil War and 2,000 soldiers from WWI are said to have died from the disease as well. And from there, the number of cases have gone up. In 1941, there were 894,134 cases of the measles in the United States. Through the use of the MMR vaccine, the reported cases of measles eventually dropped down to a record low of 37 cases in 2004. However, that was short-lived, and we’re currently seeing more cases year on year. So far in 2014, there have been 89 cases reported at the time of writing.

8. Yellow Fever – 1793 and 1853

Yellow fever

In 1792, Philadelphia was America’s largest city, as well as the capital. It was also the busiest port city in the United States, and because of that, was host to a deadly outbreak of Yellow Fever. In fact, the 1792 incident was the deadliest outbreak of Yellow Fever ever recorded in North America. By the end of the epidemic, 5,000 people had died. Yellow Fever is spread through mosquitoes, which were brought to America by Caribbean refugees. Initial symptoms are head, back and limb pain, along with a high fever. Eventually, those symptoms disappear, giving the person a false sense of security before the disease returns with an even more severe fever while turning the victim’s skin yellow. The person would then vomit clots of blood before they died from the disease. Records also show another outbreak of Yellow Fever in New Orleans in 1853 that killed 7,849 people, and by 1905, 41,000 victims had died from the disease.

7. Tuberculosis – 1800-1922


Tuberculosis killed more people in industrialized nations than any other disease in the 19th and early 20th centuries. During the late 19th century, 70-90% of those living in urban areas were infected, and 80% of those infected died from the disease. Symptoms of tuberculosis, which was also known as “consumption”, include a cough, fatigue, chest pain and spitting up blood. The disease is more than just a lung infection – it also infects the liver, intestines, bones and brain. Once you have it, TB can return at a later time as it remains dormant in your system for the rest of your life.

6. Cholera – 1832 – 1848


First showing up in Europe and in North America around 1831, Cholera is thought to have come from India. The disease, which causes violent cramps, vomiting and diarrhea usually causes death through dehydration so severe that the blood thickens and the skin turns blue. Cholera victims can die within a matter of hours, though these days the CDC considers it treatable with re-hydration. However, during the 1800s, it claimed the lives of many thousands of people.

5. Polio – 1894, 1916 and 1949-1952


Polio terrorized parents during the early part of the 1900s, and with good reason. The disease, which often struck very young children, left many of its victims deformed and paralyzed. The first major outbreak occurred in 1894 in Vermont where 18 deaths and 132 cases of paralysis were reported. Polio often hit during the summer months, and in 1916, an epidemic hit New York City that killed more than 2,000 people. Nationwide, 6,000 people died, and thousands more were paralyzed. In a time when other diseases such as diphtheria, typhoid and TB were declining, polio became an epidemic in developed countries with high standards of living. The theory is that in the past, infants may have been exposed to polio while they still had maternal antibodies in their blood, thus leading to an immunity against the disease. But with advances in infant hygiene children were only exposed to it later in life, once they no longer had the antibodies, causing them to get sick.

4. Spanish Influenza – 1918

Spanish Flu

Worldwide, the Spanish Influenza killed around 20-40 million people. It killed more people than World War I, and more people died from this disease in a single year than in the entire four years during which the Black Plague was devastating the world. When looking at just the effects it had on the US, Spanish Influenza killed an estimated 675,000 Americans during the pandemic, ten times more than World War I. In fact, half of the soldiers killed in the war died not at the hands of the enemy, but from the virus itself. 43,000 soldiers fighting in WWI died of the Spanish flu. The flu was fast acting, often killing quickly, and hit 20-40 year olds especially hard. The epidemic was so severe, it caused the life span in the US to be lowered by 10 years.

3. Asian Flu – 1957

Asian flu

After the Spanish flu, America had a second deadly influenza outbreak, and this one occurred in 1957. The Asian flu was first identified in East Asia before traveling worldwide. The Asian flu is thought to be responsible for 1-2 million deaths worldwide, but it’s considered the least severe of the three influenza pandemics of the 20th century. Even so, 69,000 Americans were killed during the epidemic.

2. AIDS – 1980s- Present


The first cases of AIDS were reported in the U.S in 1981. In total, the disease has killed more than 650,000 people, and as of 2010, 1.1 million people were living with HIV. While the number of new infections has gone down since the 1980s, there have still been 50,000 new infections over more than a decade. Today, treatment options are helping reduce the morbidity and mortality rate, and medical advances have extended the lives of many.

1. Swine Flu – 2009

Swine flu

The Swine flu outbreak in 2009 may not have been nearly as deadly as the 1918 Spanish flu (also H1N1), but it still remains as one of the worst flu seasons in recent history. This variation originated in Mexico, and traveled north to the U.S. According to the CDC, 59 million Americans contracted the virus, and 12,000 people died from it. Thankfully, flu vaccines, medical protocols and medication helped contain the virus, preventing it from infecting more individuals. H1N1 now circulates as a human seasonal flu, and 2014 was the first year since 2009 where it was the predominant strain.

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