With 7.5 billion people in the world and a rise in drug-resistant bacteria, many scientists agree that it's only a matter of time before an infectious disease wipes humanity off the face of the planet.
Throughout history, there have been terrible epidemics that have certainly threatened to eradicate the human species—families torn apart, villages ravaged and wiped from existence, and ancient cultures left to collect dust in the history books. Scientists have learned so much from collecting and studying the bones of the dead. In some cases, they can determine the cause of death if there were any lesions on the skin that indicated a specific disease, or even examine stomach contents to see what the person has been eating shortly before or at the time of death. From looking at the stomach contents, they might be able to determine that the person was poisoned—murdered or accidentally poisoned by contaminated food.
If scientists have a reason to believe that the individual died from a plague, they will look at the age, sex, and gender of the victim and will try to find out what caused this individual to fall ill and subsequently die from this plague. With this information, they will be able to narrow down what the particular plague was.
In the early centuries, unhygienic conditions were prevalent. Human waste was tossed out into the streets. Disease-carrying rats scurried around open markets and entryways. Cities did not have sanitation or sewer systems. Thousands of people traveled to immigrate to new lands or for trade purposes. Many new diseases began to appear along trade routes and in port cities.
Are disease epidemics a thing of the past? Absolutely not. Yes, there are many medical advancements that have put a stop to many diseases, but the risk of a virus or bacteria that has adapted and become unresponsive to modern medicine is extraordinarily high. Let's take a look at some of the World's Deadliest Epidemics.
Tuberculosis is an airborne disease. Meaning, it's spread when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks. People can have tuberculosis and never show any signs or symptoms. That's called inactive TB. People that have active TB will display symptoms such as a high fever, night sweats, coughing up blood, and unintentionally losing a tremendous amount of weight.
Prior to the 20th century, tuberculosis was also sometimes referred to as 'consumption'—a term that was used for weight loss.
In the 1800's, 25% of all deaths in Europe were attributed to tuberculosis. It wasn't until after World War II that TB-related deaths started to steadily decline. This is attributed to the availability of vaccinations, better sanitation, and public health education campaigns. By the late 1940's, less than 10% of deaths were due to TB.
According to the World Health Organization, a little over 1 million people die each year from tuberculosis. An estimated 1,000 of those victims are in the United States. Scientists remain concerned with a new drug-resistant tuberculosis strain emerging.
14 Spanish Flu
The Spanish Flu killed more people than the World War I did. It was a unique disease in the sense that its target demographic was healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40. For the majority of diseases, the greatest groups at risk were the elderly, young children, or the immuno-compromised.
An estimated 50 million people worldwide succumbed to the Spanish Flu. It is also referred to as the "Mother of Pandemics." It was a vicious and quick assault. It could take a perfectly healthy individual and kill him overnight. The patients struggled for air in their dying minutes. Instead of breathing in oxygen, blood-tinged foam would seep from their mouths. The patient would essentially suffocate to death.
The Spanish Flu hit every continent except Antarctica. Scientists have spent decades attempting to trace the origins of the Spanish Flu. It is thought that if its origins can be found, then a future epidemic might possibly be thwarted. Two places where it seems likely to have started are on opposite sides of the globe—Kansas and China.
Scientists have been digging up the graves and analyzing the bodies of Spanish Flu victims. It seems that the earliest cases have been found in these two areas. What researchers are hoping to obtain are samples from victims prior to 1917.
13 Black Death
Between 1340-1360, the Bubonic plague wiped out an estimated 30-60% of Europe's population. The plague was spread by fleas which were carried around by rats. The actual name for the Black Death is understood to be the bubonic plague.
With the Bubonic plague, lymph nodes swell to the size of lemons and are extraordinarily painful. Some would become so enlarged that they would burst and ooze out thick pus. The Bubonic plague was referred to as the Black Death due to its grotesque ability to kill skin tissue and changing its color to pitch black. After the first signs of infection, it would only be a matter of hours before death came. It was an excruciating death as the victim remained cognizant while his organs and tissues became necrotic.
The Black Death hit every corner of Europe and even struck places in the Middle East. Rats traveled on ships and wandered thru the sewage-filled streets, all the while spreading the plague. It quickly claimed its first victims in towns located nearest the sea ports and trade routes. Nobody was safe from the plague.
12 Yellow Fever Ravages Philadelphia
In the 1700's there was an outbreak of Yellow Fever in the Caribbean. People fled to the United States to escape it. Unfortunately, they brought with them a terrible disease.
People came down with nausea, high fevers, and jaundice (due to the virus attacking the liver) which gave its victims a yellow appearance. Hence, the name "Yellow Fever." The government put a ban of people leaving Philadelphia as well as goods and services coming in and out of the city of 50,000.
City officials mistakenly thought they were dealing with a virus that African Americans had immunity from. They recruited African Americans to provide medical care to those that came down with the horrible virus. They also had them handle the thousands of bodies that started piling up. Unfortunately, Yellow Fever was nondiscriminatory and no one was safe from it. African Americans died at the exact same rate as every other race.
Popular treatment at the time was blood-letting. Doctors would bleed the patients out of what they thought was 'bad, infected blood'. This treatment was the preferred treatment of Yellow Fever for over half a century.
5,000 people died in Philadelphia between August and November of 1793. However, 20,000 people managed to escape the city. Finally, in November, new cases of Yellow Fever stopped popping up. It wasn't known at the time but this was due to the cold November weather. Yellow Fever was being transmitted and spread by mosquitoes. The cold weather had killed them off.
11 Smallpox Kills Thousands In Athens
Smallpox is a terrifying disfiguring disease. One of the first symptoms of smallpox is a red rash. The rash can spread over the entire body. This rash then transforms into painful, pus-filled blisters. These blisters can get so large that they will rupture and leave deep scarring.
In 430 B.C.E., a horrible outbreak of smallpox hit Athens, Greece. The city was quickly overcome with thousands of dead bodies cluttering the streets making 30,000 people succumb to the disease. Those that survived smallpox developed an immunity to it. They were able to take care of those that came down with it. At the end of the outbreak, 20% of Athens population was gone.
In the 6th Century, a very early type 'vaccine' was developed in China. Scabs from the smallpox pustules were ground up and made into a tincture. This tincture was smeared under the nose of a healthy person.
In the 1700's a gentleman by the name of Edward Jenner created the first successful vaccine by exposing someone to a milder form of smallpox, cowpox, and then exposing them to smallpox with no contraction of the disease. The word "vaccine" is actually derived from the Latin word for cow, vacca.
The smallpox virus is kept in a high security lab operated by the Center for Disease Control. The last known case of smallpox was in 1978 when the virus escaped from a lab in England.
10 Over 10 Million Cases Of Malaria
Malaria is spread by mosquitoes. The incubation period is roughly two weeks between being bit by a malaria-carrying mosquito and showing the first symptoms. Symptoms of malaria include vomiting, headache, fatigue, and in severe cases, seizures and death.
Malaria is quite common in Africa, especially among pregnant women and children. This demographic is very vulnerable to contracting it. In 2015, according to the World Health Organization, 438,000 people died from malaria and there were over 10 million documented cases of it worldwide.
Global initiatives involving the introduction of precautionary measures have been challenging because most preventive measures focus on the weather patterns. Malaria outbreaks tend to occur shortly after unexpected freak weather phenomena. The problem is that weather patterns are extremely difficult to predict and often involve a lot of guesswork.
From 1817-1823, contaminated rice from India fueled the cholera epidemic that spread throughout Europe. Troops that were stationed in India started returning home and with them they brought cholera. Cholera is an infection of the intestines. It causes violent diarrhea and vomiting. It can lead to dehydration and ultimately, death.
Previous cholera outbreaks were mild and didn't last nearly as long or spread quite as far as the cholera epidemic of 1817. With soldiers traveling back home and ongoing religious pilgrimages, cholera was able to hitch a ride and cover thousands of thousands of miles in a matter of days.
Scientists speculate that as many as 50,000 people died from the 1817 cholera epidemic.
8 The End Of Greece's Golden Age
The end of Greece's Golden Age came in the form of a horrific plague. Scholars were uncertain until 1999 what the great 'Plague of Athens' actually was. After extensive research, it was determined to most likely be Typhus. They came to this conclusion after finding documentation of victims having gangrene on the tips of their fingers and toes, a distinctive characteristic of Typhus. The majority of victims also died after 5-7 days of illness, another characteristic of Typhus. Thousands upon thousands of people died from the plague. Bodies started piling up in the streets and in ancient temples. Trenches were dug as the need for mass graves arose.
People that had not yet contracted the plague, started going crazy. They believed that the gods were angry and punishing them. This caused people to no longer want to abide by the law. They thought 'why bother when it was just a matter of days before they too died from this god-sent disease'? The people of Athens began stealing, frivolously spending enormous amounts of money, and conducting themselves immorally.
7 Justinian Plague
The Justinian Plague hit the Eastern Roman Empire in 541. This included the heavily-populated city of Constantinople. The plague spread quickly through Constantinople as it was carried by disease-ridden rats that came in on the grain ships from Egypt.
Compounding the horrific disease was the atrocious ruler, Emperor Justinian. Justinian had no sympathy for the massive death toll or the suffering of his people. He even had the audacity to raise the taxes to compensate for the deaths! He was a terrible ruler, to say the least.
It wasn't known at the time, but it has recently been found that the Justinian Plague was most likely the Bubonic plague. Conservative estimates put the death toll at 5,000 people a day. The Justinian Plague is blamed for over a jaw-dropping 20 million deaths. It took centuries for the population to recover and it forever changed the course of history.
6 Antonine Plague
The Antonine Plague occurred in the Roman Empire between 165-180 AD, named after Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who reigned from 161-180 AD. The Antonine Plague is thought to have originated in the Middle East and brought back to Rome by troops that returned from war.
The disease spread like wildfire and wiped out an estimated 5 million people. Those that contracted the disease had a 25% chance of survival. Those that did survive had developed an immunity that protected them years later when the plague returned. Those that had an immunity to it were able to take care of those that came down with the plague during its second wave.
5 Terrifying Typhus
Right at the tail end of the catastrophic Spanish Flu came Typhus. From 1918-1922, Typhus ravaged Russia and much of Eastern Europe. Serbia alone lost over 150,000 people to this bacteria which was carried by ticks, lice, and mosquitoes. 30 million people contracted Typhus during this time period and an estimated 5 million people ended up dying from this horrible disease.
Over 400 Serbian medical doctors contracted and lost their lives to Typhus. Typhus terrified Germany and the Western countries. Being the middle of war, these countries were reluctant to invade Serbia even with it being an invaluable country to take. Typhus definitely played an important part in World War I. If Typhus had spread to the Western countries, the war could have had a very different outcome.
Thankfully, the antibiotics available today have eliminated concern over Typhus.
4 1916 Polio Pandemic
In 1916, Polio hit New York City with a vengeance and then popped up throughout the US The future President at the time, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, was a victim of Polio himself. In 1921, at the age of 39, Polio left him paralyzed from the waist down.
It was a terrifying disease as people didn't understand why children and healthy young adults were the most afflicted. Approximately 9,300 people in the US caught this horrifying disease, the majority being children. Not all that contracted Polio would have permanent paralysis like former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt but quite a few were left with lingering numbness in their extremities and skin hypersensitivity. Only 1% of Polio victims had paralysis as severe as the Roosevelt.
It wasn't until 1955 that a Polio vaccination was introduced. Polio vaccinations are now common childhood vaccinations.
3 Cocolitzi Killed Off The Aztecs
Cocolitzi is the disease that is thought to have killed off the Aztecs. It is a terrifying and aggressive disease with symptoms that include hemorrhaging from the nose and ears, black tongue, dark urine, delirium, very high fever, and head/neck pain. Between 1545 and 1580, Cocolitzi killed off an astounding 10-20 million Aztecs. The entire Aztec population was decimated.
So what brought about Cocolitzi? This has been the subject of dozens of universities and privately-funded studies. General consensus seems to be that erratic weather patterns caused sudden explosions in the rat population. Long droughts followed by enormous amounts of rainfall, brought about millions of rats. These rats carried diseases that quickly spread to humans.
Scientists believe that there is another Cocolitzi out there. But the question is, when will it strike? Will an increase in erratic weather phenomena cause its return?
2 AIDS Ground Zero
A 2014 university study looked at the genetic makeup of HIV and determined its origins—the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nearly 5% of the population of Congo is infected with HIV. That's 1.2 million people living with the disease. 60% of those with HIV are female. The most common way of transmission is by unprotected sexual activity.
As early as the 1920's with a booming sex trade industry and unsafe needle usage, HIV infections started to take off. It wasn't until decades later in the 1980's that HIV was recognized and by then, it had reached epidemic proportions. It had turned into a global crisis with close to 100 million people having contracted the virus.
Tragically, HIV rates continue to climb due to lack of education on safe sex practices and unsafe blood transfusions. Dangerous wars and social unrest inside DR Congo make it impossible to get humanitarian workers safely inside to educate and teach people to use protection when engaging in sexual activities.
With AIDS comes a decrease in immune function. People that contract HIV, which develops into AIDS, are much more susceptible to catching other diseases including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and certain types of cancers.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) garnered worldwide attention when an outbreak occurred in China between November 2002 and July 2003. SARS is a viral respiratory disease that has a 9-10% fatality rate.
The 2002-2003 outbreak hit 37 countries and resulted in over 700 deaths. There is currently no cure or vaccination to prevent SARS. However, the treatment protocol for a SARS patients is quarantine in a negative pressure room with supplemental oxygen and pain relievers as needed. The last documented case of SARS was in late 2004.
The CDC and NIH have said that developing a vaccination to SARS is of the highest priority. As of 2017, there is one formula showing promise in animal subjects.
Sources: rwjf, time, cdc