FLASHBACK: 10 pandemics that ravaged mankind

The 110-bed Isolation Center at Mobolaji Johnoson, Stadium, Onikan, Lagos Island, constructed by the Lagos State Government and Guaranty Trust Bank, unveiled on Saturday, March 28, 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic, also known as COVID-19, has tightly maintained a stranglehold on many nations across the globe since it began subtly as an epidemic in Wuhan, China in December 2019.

Like a bolt of lightning, it has quickly shot, at times furtively, across borders, leaving in its trail thousands of deaths and displacement of livelihoods in virtually all the nations of the world except the continent of Antarctica.

Many nations are now on lockdown, battling to contain the plague as they also battle to keep their tottering economies from taking further plunges.

At the current count, about 800, 000 individuals across the world have felt the icy clutches of the ailment that is presently keeping scientists awake as they battle against an overwhelming tide to get a vaccine. Over 30, 000 have died from the scourge and counting.

Daily, as the body count mounts, the virus continues to attack not only the low in the society but the mighty in the corridors of power. It does not take prisoners going from the rapidly expanding list of powerful personalities, whose bodies, the virus has invaded.

But a quick gaze down history shows similar pandemics that had ravaged mankind in the past leaving behind massive human casualties.

Massive death toll

Historians posit that the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the Great War, also known today as World War I (WWI).

About 20 and 40 million people died during the scourge. It has been cited as the most destructive pandemic in recorded world history.

Records also show that more people died of the influenza in a single year than in four-year Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe” the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster.

The effect of the influenza epidemic was so severe that the average life span in the U.S. was depressed by 10 years. The influenza virus had a deadly virulence, with a mortality rate at 2.5 per cent compared to the previous influenza epidemics, which were less than 0.1 per cent.

Ten pandemics

The Spanish Flu was, however, one of such pandemics that has crushed the human race in the past. Other pandemics, with more or less, equal fury have ravaged humanity in the last decades.

Ailments such as Cholera, bubonic plague, AIDS, smallpox are some of the scourge that have in human history and left behind body bags. Smallpox, particularly has killed between 300-500 million people in its 12,000 year existence.

Below are listed some of these pandemics that humans, Ill prepared to handle, suffered massive human losses


Death Toll: 36 million


First identified in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976, HIV/AIDS has truly proven itself as a global pandemic, killing more than 36 million people since 1981. Currently, there are between 31 and 35 million people living with HIV, the vast majority of those are in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 5% of the population is infected, roughly 21 million people.

As awareness has grown, new treatments have been developed that make HIV far more manageable, and many of those infected go on to lead productive lives. Between 2005 and 2012 the annual global deaths from HIV/AIDS dropped from 2.2 million to 1.6 million.

9- FLU PANDEMIC (1968)

Death Toll: 1 million

Cause: Influenza

A category 2 flu pandemic sometimes referred to as “the Hong Kong Flu,” the 1968 flu pandemic was caused by the H3N2 strain of the Influenza A virus, a genetic offshoot of the H2N2 subtype.

From the first reported case on July 13, 1968, in Hong Kong, it took only 17 days before outbreaks of the virus were reported in Singapore and Vietnam, and within three months had spread to The Philippines, India, Australia, Europe, and the United States.

While the 1968 pandemic had a comparatively low mortality rate (.5%) it still resulted in the deaths of more than a million people, including 500,000 residents of Hong Kong, approximately 15% of its population at the time.

8- ASIAN FLU (1956-1958)

Death Toll: 2 million

Cause: Influenza

Asian Flu was a pandemic outbreak of Influenza A of the H2N2 subtype, that originated in China in 1956 and lasted until 1958. In its two-year spree, Asian Flu travelled from the Chinese province of Guizhou to Singapore, Hong Kong, and the United States.

Estimates for the death toll of the Asian Flu vary depending on the source, but the World Health Organisation places the final tally at approximately 2 million deaths, 69,800 of those in the US alone.

7- FLU PANDEMIC (1918)

Death Toll: 20 -50 million

Cause: Influenza

Between 1918 and 1920 a disturbingly deadly outbreak of influenza tore across the globe, infecting over a third of the world’s population and ending the lives of 20 – 50 million people.

Of the 500 million people infected in the 1918 pandemic, the mortality rate was estimated at 10% to 20%, with up to 25 million deaths in the first 25 weeks alone.

What separated the 1918 flu pandemic from other influenza outbreaks was the victims; where influenza had always previously only killed juveniles and the elderly or already weakened patients, it had begun striking down completely healthy young adults, while leaving children and those with weaker immune systems still alive.


Death Toll: 800,000+

Cause: Cholera

Like its five previous incarnations, the Sixth Cholera Pandemic originated in India where it killed over 800,000, before spreading to the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia.

The Sixth Cholera Pandemic was also the source of the last American outbreak of Cholera (1910–1911). American health authorities, having learned from the past, quickly sought to isolate the infected, and in the end only 11 deaths occurred in the U.S. By 1923 Cholera cases had been cut down dramatically, although it was still a constant in India.

5- FLU PANDEMIC (1889-1890)

Death Toll: 1 million

Cause: Influenza

Originally the “Asiatic Flu” or “Russian Flu” as it was called, this strain was thought to be an outbreak of the Influenza A virus subtype H2N2, though recent discoveries have instead found the cause to be the Influenza A virus subtype H3N8.

The first cases were observed in May 1889 in three separate and distant locations, Bukhara in Central Asia (Turkestan), Athabasca in northwestern Canada, and Greenland. Rapid population growth of the 19th century, specifically in urban areas, only helped the flu spread, and before long the outbreak had spread across the globe.

Though it was the first true epidemic in the era of bacteriology and much was learned from it. In the end, the 1889-1890 Flu Pandemic claimed the lives of over a million individuals.


Death Toll: 1 million

Cause: Cholera

Generally considered the most deadly of the seven cholera pandemics, the third major outbreak of Cholera in the 19th century lasted from 1852 to 1860.

Like the first and second pandemics, the Third Cholera Pandemic originated in India, spreading from the Ganges River Delta before tearing through Asia, Europe, North America and Africa and ending the lives of over a million people.

British physician John Snow, while working in a poor area of London, tracked cases of cholera and eventually succeeded in identifying contaminated water as the means of transmission for the disease.

Unfortunately, the same year as his discovery (1854) went down as the worst year of the pandemic, in which 23,000 people died in Great Britain.

3- THE BLACK DEATH (1346-1353)

Death Toll: 75 – 200 million

Cause: Bubonic Plague

From 1346 to 1353 an outbreak of the Plague ravaged Europe, Africa, and Asia, with an estimated death toll between 75 and 200 million people.

Thought to have originated in Asia, the plague most likely jumped continents via the fleas living on the rats that so frequently lived aboard merchant ships.

Ports being major urban centres at the time, were the perfect breeding ground for the rats and fleas, and thus the insidious bacterium flourished, devastating three continents in its wake.


Death Toll: 25 million

Cause: Bubonic Plague

Thought to have killed perhaps half the population of Europe, the Plague of Justinian was an outbreak of the bubonic plague that afflicted the Byzantine Empire and Mediterranean port cities, killing up to 25 million people in its year long reign of terror.

Generally regarded as the first recorded incident of the Bubonic Plague, the Plague of Justinian left its mark on the world, killing up to a quarter of the population of the Eastern Mediterranean and devastating the city of Constantinople, where at its height it was killing an estimated 5,000 people per day and eventually resulting in the deaths of 40% of the city’s population.


Death Toll: 5 million

Cause: Unknown

Also known as the Plague of Galen, the Antonine Plague was an ancient pandemic that affected Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and Italy and is thought to have been either smallpox or measles, though the true cause is still unknown.

This unknown disease was brought back to Rome by soldiers returning from Mesopotamia around 165AD; unknowingly, they had spread a disease which would end up killing over 5 million people and decimating the Roman army.

And now…COVID-19

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which may cause illness in animals or humans. In humans, several coronaviruses are known to cause respiratory infections ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

According to WHO, the most recently discovered coronavirus causes COVID-19.

COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus. This new virus and disease were unknown before the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.

Illnesses due to COVID-19 infection is generally mild, especially for children and young adults. However, it can cause serious illness: about 1 in every 5 people who catch it need hospital care. About 30, 000 deaths have so far been recorded globally

We can overcome this if…- Expert

Oyewale Tomori, a professor of Virology said the world, especially Africa, has not learnt any lessons from the previous pandemics, “instead we quickly forget what we learnt.”

“After the Ebola outbreak, for instance, we patted ourselves that we looked after it, but what did we do afterwards?” he said. “We disbanded everything that we used to take care of the outbreak and went back to sleep. Now that coronavirus has come, we are scouting around because we have nowhere to start from.”

“When this is over, all the structures will be disbanded as usual. So we cannot talk about lessons learnt but lessons forgotten.”

He, however, said the world can overcome the present scourge.

“The pandemics of the past, were they with a new epidemiological makeup, no! They say there is nothing new under the sun but there are some new infections. The animals have their own environment and humans do, but when you bring them (together) new diseases might emerge as pathogens jump from each other until they (humans) develop immunity for those new aliments,” he said.

He said: “some people will survive (coronavirus outbreak) while some people will not survive it until we become immune to the disease and the epidemic stops or we get a cure for the disease.

He said the number of new infections and deaths from the outbreak can be reduced if people across the globe do “what WHO has been preaching and that is social distancing or isolation.”

“If that pathogen or virus does not get to you, then you cannot be sick. If you are not exposed or contaminated in anyway then you won’t get it. If you stay distant from infected people then it will not reach you,” he said.

“We might not be able control the infections but we can ‘flatten the curve’. Generally, the world has become less clean and we need to tackle that too to reduce the spread of the disease and deaths,” he added.

“Through history, there have been quite a number of pandemics that it seemed would even wipe out the whole world. Today we are currently experiencing one but there is more hope this time,” said Tavershima Adongo, a general practitioner.

“For one, we can all communicate more effectively and wider now, so we can easily share new information and improved methods faster. It took the black death of 1347 before we learned the importance of quarantine,” he added.

He also said, “our fast-paced microbiology approaches enabled us to learn early how this virus spreads. Clinical care has improved such that we can now place patients on ventilators and other support systems. Also, we can call out for help sooner, enabling us to get or buy materials & equipment faster.

“Finally, passing on useful safety information, such as adhering to basic hygienic behaviours of regular hand washing, coughing into our elbows or proper disposable hand towels, etc, to the population is faster and easier now. All of this is going to save more people now than in the past. 200-300 years ago, this would have been worse.”



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