When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in late 2019 and early 2020, people panicked, and authorities didn’t know what to do. Institutions ordered their employees to work from home, and most parts of the world were on lockdown and quarantine. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is the one that still lingers in our minds, there have been more. Historically, there have been many viral diseases, some of which have claimed hundreds of millions of lives. In this piece, we look at some general pandemic facts that have historically affected humankind.

1. The Spanish Flu Is Among the Worst Pandemics in History

Also referred to as the “Great Influenza,” the 1918-1919 Spanish flu (a misnomer) is among the deadliest pandemics in history. Caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus, the disease was first detected in March 1918 in Kansas, United States. Records show that about 500 million people were infected worldwide, possibly 100 million succumbing.

2. The 2009 H1N1 Pandemic Caused Massive Havoc

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In 2009, the first cases of H1N1, formerly known as swine flu, were reported in Mexico and the United States. Given that it was the same type of virus that caused the infamous Spanish Flu in 1918, people were terrified about the possibility of the pandemic being as big. The Mexican authorities ordered a 5-day nationwide lockdown, with nearly identical rules to the ones from the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

3. The Great Influenza Pandemic Was Called the “Spanish Flu” Because the Country Truthfully Reported About It

The Great Influenza Pandemic started during World War I. As such, every country that was actively participating in the war tried to downplay the effectiveness of the disease to avoid hurting their people’s morale. Countries like the USA, France, Britain, and Germany faked their data. However, because Spain wasn’t actively fighting, the country’s press truthfully reported about the outbreak, hence the name “Spanish Flu.”

4. The Black Death Pandemic Is Among the First Ever Recorded

Prevailing from 1346 to 1353, the Black Death pandemic is among the first recorded. It is also among the deadliest, considering more than 50 million people succumbed to it. Although the Bubonic plague is believed to have originated in Asia, Europe was the worst-hit region. It was so bad that England and France called a truce to their war. Only Antonine, Cyprian, Justinian, and Leprosy plagues were reported earlier than the Black Death pandemic.

5. The Bubonic Plague Was Called the Black Death Pandemic Because of its Symptoms

Historically, the people who succumbed to the Black Death Pandemic often had black tissue due to gangrene. Their lymph nodes were blackened and swollen after the bacteria entered their skin. This explains how the pandemic got the name “Black Death.”

6. No Great Influenza Pandemic-Related Deaths Were Reported in American Samoa

When the Great Influenza pandemic broke in 1918, the Governor of American Samoa, John Martin Poyer, directed that the region be quarantined. Given how massive and deadly the disease was, it was commendable that no Spanish Flu-related deaths were reported in American Samoa.

7. Many Famous People Survived the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

Walt Disney, the creator of Micky Mouse and Donald Duck characters, was among the many people who survived the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. According to reports, he fell so ill that he was released from the army to go home to his family. Fortunately, he survived and lived to achieve what he did. Others on the list include Mary Pickford, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Haile Selassie I, and Edward Munch.

8. An Italian Microbiologist Saved Many Lives with His SARS-CoV-1 Discovery

Formerly known as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 1 (SARS-CoV-1) was a pandemic that hit the world between 2002 and 2004. The outbreak ended up killing about 9% of the patients who contracted it. However, the figure could have been more were it not for the heroics of an Italian microbiologist, Carlo Urbani.

He was the first to discover SARS-CoV-1 in Vietnam and reported it to the World Health Organization. Unfortunately, the doctor also caught and succumbed to the disease on March 29, 2003. In what is considered a heroic move, Urbani also asked for his lung tissue to be donated for scientific research after he died.

9. The Black Death Pandemic Partly Inspired A Wave of Anti-Semitic Violence in Christian Europe

The Black Death Pandemic claimed millions of lives when it broke. However, very few deaths related to the disease were reported among the Jewish communities. Experts attribute this to the impeccable hygienic practices that the Jews observed.

On the contrary, the Christian communities in Europe interpreted it differently: they thought the pandemic was a result of a Jewish conspiracy. This led to a wave of anti-Semitic violence in Christian Europe.

10. Encephalitis Pandemic Directly Caused More Than 500,000 Deaths

Between 1915 and 1926, a pandemic known as encephalitis directly caused the death of more than 500,000 people worldwide. Scientifically called Encephalitis lethargica, the disease attacked the brain, leaving the patients in a statue-like condition; they couldn’t move or talk. First described by Constantin Von Economo, an Austrian neurologist, estimates show that over a million people were infected with encephalitis. Its causative agent has never been discovered.

11. The Third Plague Pandemic Lasted for Over a Century

Most pandemics that have historically rocked the world didn’t last long (at least not for more than a century like the Third Plague pandemic did). The first case of the disease was discovered in 1855 and spread through to 1960. Identified as Y. pestis, the bacterium causing the disease ensured the pandemic recurred for 30 consecutive years. The bubonic plague killed over 15 million people.

12. Most Pandemics Operate in Waves

How a pandemic affects people varies depending on how its causative agents mutate. The deadliest pandemics in history have always affected their victims in waves. For instance, the 1968 H3N2 pandemic, later known as Hong Kong Flu, first had a low fatality rate.

However, as it spread and mutated, it became more deadly; the second wave resulted in a significant amount of deaths. Similarly, the first and third waves of the Great Influenza pandemic were not as fatal as the second, which resulted in cities running out of coffins.

13. Some Prisoners Agreed to Be Injected Tissue During the Great Influenza Pandemic In Exchange for Their Freedom if They Survived

At the height of the Great Influenza pandemic, 62 Boston prisoners agreed to be injected with infected tissue and sprayed with infectious aerosols in exchange for their freedom if they survived. All of them lived, but the ward doctor succumbed shortly after.

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Last Update: February 26, 2024