Viral Epidemics in History. How and Where most originated, how long they lasted

  1. Series of Plagues in What is now China, 3000 BC. About 5,000 years ago, an epidemic wiped out a prehistoric village in China. The bodies of the dead were stuffed inside a house that was later burned down. No age group was spared, as the skeletons of juveniles, young adults and middle-age people were found inside the house. The archaeological site is now called "Hamin Mangha" and is one of the best-preserved prehistoric sites in northeastern China. Archaeological and anthropological study indicates that the epidemic happened quickly enough that there was no time for proper burials, and the site was not inhabited again. 
  2. Before the discovery of Hamin Mangha, another prehistoric mass burial that dates to roughly the same time period was found at a site called Miaozigou, in northeastern China. Together, these discoveries suggest that an epidemic ravaged the entire region. 
  3. 430 B.C., not long after a war between Athens and Sparta began, an epidemic ravaged the people of Athens and lasted for five years. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 100,000 people. The Greek historian Thucydides (460-400 B.C.) wrote that "people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath" (translation by Richard Crawley from the book "The History of the Peloponnese War," London Dent, 1914). What exactly this epidemic was has long been a source of debate among scientists; a number of diseases have been put forward as possibilities, including typhoid fever and Ebola. Many scholars believe that overcrowding caused by the war exacerbated the epidemic. Sparta's army was stronger, forcing the Athenians to take refuge behind a series of fortifications called the "long walls" that protected their city. Despite the epidemic, the war continued on, not ending until 404 B.C., when Athens was forced to capitulate to Sparta.
  4. Anonine Plague, 165-180 A.D. (Roman Empire) When soldiers returned to the Roman Empire from campaigning, they brought back more than the spoils of victory. The Antonine Plague, which may have been smallpox, laid waste to the army and may have killed over 5 million people in the Roman empire, wrote April Pudsey, a senior lecturer in Roman History at Manchester Metropolitan University, in a paper published in the book "Disability in Antiquity," Routledge, 2017). Many historians believe that the epidemic was first brought into the Roman Empire by soldiers returning home after a war against Parthia. The epidemic contributed to the end of the Pax Romana (the Roman Peace), a period from 27 B.C. to A.D. 180, when Rome was at the height of its power. After A.D. 180, instability grew throughout the Roman Empire, as it experienced more civil wars and invasions by "barbarian" groups. Christianity became increasingly popular in the time after the plague occurred.
  5. 250-271 Plague of Cyprian, Rome, Luxor  Named after St. Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage (a city in Tunisia) who described the epidemic as signaling the end of the world, the Plague of Cyprian is estimated to have killed 5,000 people a day in Rome alone. In 2014, archaeologists in Luxor found what appears to be a mass burial site of plague victims. Their bodies were covered with a thick layer of lime (historically used as a disinfectant). Archaeologists found three kilns used to manufacture lime and the remains of plague victims burned in a giant bonfire.  Experts aren't sure what disease caused the epidemic. "The bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength [and] a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces (an area of the mouth)," Cyprian wrote in Latin in a work called "De mortalitate" (translation by Philip Schaff from the book "Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix," Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1885).
  6. In 541 the first known plague pandemic started in Europe and later in the Middle East.  The pandemic is believed to have originated in Africa and then spread to Europe through infected rats on merchant ships. It reached the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 541 A.D. and was soon claiming up to 10,000 lives per day—so many that unburied bodies were eventually stacked inside buildings or left in the open. According to accounts by the ancient historian Procopius, the victims demonstrated many of the classic symptoms of bubonic plague, including sudden fever and swollen lymph nodes. Justinian himself was stricken and managed to recover, but over a third of Constantinople’s residents were not so lucky. Even after it subsided in Byzantium, the plague continued to reappear in Europe, Africa and Asia for several years, causing widespread famine and devastation. It is believed to have killed at least 25 million people, but the actual death toll may have been much higher. Emperor Justinian demanded that they work, but workers demanded double and triple wages. Justinian constructed the great cathedral known as Hagia Sophio (Holy Wisdom) and he also got sick with the plague and survived.  But his empire gradually lost territory in the aftermath of the plague.
  7. 1346-1353  Ships landing in Italy, brought rat fleas infected with bubonic plague.  This plague originated in Asia, probably China, leaving devastation everywhere. The populations of whole towns were wiped out, and it was said that the living spent most of their time burying the dead in mass graves. “We see death coming into our midst like black smoke,” the Welsh poet Jeuan Gethin wrote, “a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance.” Medieval physicians tried to combat the disease using bloodletting, lancing and other crude techniques, but with little understanding of its cause, most fell back on the belief that it was a divine punishment for their sins. Some Christians even blamed it on Jews and launched bloody pogroms. The Black Death finally subsided in the West around 1353, but not before it killed as many as 50 million people—more than half the population of Europe. Modern doctors say it was caused by a bacterium Yersinia pestis, carried by fleas, transported by rats. 30% of Europeans died over the next 4 years, and the plague spread as far as the Middle East.“Huge Trenches were excavated to handle the many bodies”  “people thought it was the end of the world, and for millions, it was”  10 years later it raged back.  Economically so many died, that laborers were hard to find, many refused to return to work, even at risk of “the Kings law” and they demanded higher wages and forced the wealthy to pay more.  It is called “the plague that ended serfdom”.   
  8. 1492 Columbus brought an epidemic of sorts, to the “New World” that killed entire tribes, leaving lands and villages open to seizure by the “Spanish immigrants to the New World.  There was a shortage of labor to “till the soil” for the new immigrants. 
  9. Cocoliztli Epidemic, 1545-1548.  The infection that caused the cocoliztli epidemic was a form of viral hemorrhagic fever that killed 15 million inhabitants of Mexico and Central America. Among a population already weakened by extreme drought, the disease proved to be utterly catastrophic. "Cocoliztli" is the Aztec word for "pest."   A recent study that examined DNA from the skeletons of victims found that they were infected with a subspecies of Salmonella known as S. paratyphi C, which causes enteric fever, a category of fever that includes typhoid. Enteric fever can cause high fever, dehydration and gastrointestinal problems and is still a major health threat today.
  10. European Plagues, 16th Century brought to America by ships from Europe   The American Plagues are a cluster of Eurasian diseases brought to the Americas by European explorers. These illnesses, including smallpox, contributed to the collapse of the Inca and Aztec civilizations. Some estimates suggest that 90% of the indigenous population in the Western Hemisphere was killed off.  The diseases helped a Spanish force led by Hernán Cortés conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1519 and another Spanish force led by Francisco Pizarro conquer the Incas in 1532. The Spanish took over the territories of both empires. In both cases, the Aztec and Incan armies had been ravaged by disease and were unable to withstand the Spanish forces. When citizens of Britain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands began exploring, conquering and settling the Western Hemisphere, they were also helped by the fact that disease had vastly reduced the size of any indigenous groups that opposed them.
  11. 1665 in London, was a continuation of several smaller earlier plagues.   In 1665 plague arose in the suburb of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, but it soon traveled into the cramped and filthy neighborhoods of the city proper. At its peak in September 1665, some 8,000 people were dying each week. The wealthy—including King Charles II—fled to the countryside, leaving the poor as the plague’s main victims. “Never did so many husbands and wives die together,” a reverend named Thomas Vincent wrote, “never did so many parents carry their children with them to the grave.” As the sickness spread, London’s authorities tried to contain the infected by quarantining them in their homes, which were marked with a red cross. Somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 people eventually perished before the outbreak died down in 1666.
  12. 1720, Plague of Marseille hit with a “ship” from the Middle East, carrying rats and fleas. The disease arrived on a merchant ship called the Grand Saint Antoine, which had picked up infected passengers during a journey to the Middle East. The vessel was quarantined, but its owner—who also happened to be Marseille’s deputy mayor—convinced health officials to let him unload its cargo. Plague-carrying rat fleas soon spread across the city, sparking an epidemic. People died by the thousands, and the piles of bodies on the streets grew so large that convicts were conscripted to dispose of them. In nearby Provence, “plague walls” were even built to try to and contain the infection, but it still spilled over into southern France before finally disappearing in 1722. By then, it had killed roughly 100,000 people.
  13. Russian Plague, 1770-1772   In plague-ravaged Moscow, the terror of quarantined citizens erupted into violence. Riots spread through the city and culminated in the murder of Archbishop Ambrosius, who was encouraging crowds not to gather for worship. The empress of Russia, Catherine II (also called Catherine the Great), was so desperate to contain the plague and restore public order that she issued a hasty decree ordering that all factories be moved from Moscow. By the time the plague ended, as many as 100,000 people may have died. Even after the plague ended, Catherine struggled to restore order. In 1773, Yemelyan Pugachev, a man who claimed to be Peter III (Catherine's executed husband), led an insurrection that resulted in the deaths of thousands more.
  14. Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic: 1793  When yellow fever seized Philadelphia, the United States' capital at the time, officials wrongly believed that slaves were immune. As a result, abolitionists called for people of African origin to be recruited to nurse the sick. The disease is carried and transmitted by mosquitoes, which experienced a population boom during the particularly hot and humid summer weather in Philadelphia that year. It wasn't until winter arrived — and the mosquitoes died out — that the epidemic finally stopped. By then, more than 5,000 people had died.   
  15. 1855, From Yunnan, China. Plague spread worldwide. The first two major plague pandemics began with the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death. The most recent, the so-called “Third Pandemic,” erupted in 1855 in the Chinese province of Yunnan. The disease traversed the globe over the next several decades, and by the beginning of the 20th century, infected rats traveling on steamships had carried it to all six inhabited continents. The worldwide outbreak would eventually claim some 15 million lives before petering out in the 1950s. Most of the devastation took place in China and India, but there were also scattered cases from South Africa to San Francisco. Despite the heavy casualties, the Third Pandemic led to several breakthroughs in doctors’ understanding of the bubonic plague. In 1894, a Hong Kong-based doctor named Alexandre Yersin identified the bacillus Yersinia pestis as the cause of the disease. A few years later, another physician finally confirmed that bites from rat fleas were the main way the infection spread to humans. 
  16. Spanish Flu Pandemic, 1918-1920 An estimated 500 million people from the South Seas to the North Pole fell victim to Spanish Flu. One-fifth of those died, with some indigenous communities pushed to the brink of extinction. The first recorded case was a U.S. military base, but other reports suggested a similar flu occurred a year earlier in Europe. Over 600,000 American’s died, and more U.S. soldiers died of the flu than of “bullets” during WWI. The flu's spread and lethality was enhanced by the cramped conditions of soldiers and poor wartime nutrition that many people were experiencing during World War I.  The U.S. Government under President Wilson, passed a “Sedition Act of 1918” which discouraged newspapers and even private conversation about the flu for fear that it would hurt the sale of War Bonds and discourage the WWI war effort. Ironically, President Wilson, fell ill, believed to the Spanish Flu, and was confined to treatment during the last year of his presidential term. Despite the name Spanish Flu, the disease likely did not start in Spain. Spain was a neutral nation during the war and did not enforce strict censorship of its press, which could therefore freely publish early accounts of the illness. As a result, people falsely believed the illness was specific to Spain, and the name Spanish Flu stuck.
  17. The Asian Flu, 1957-1958   The Asian Flu pandemic was another global showing for influenza. With its roots in China, the disease claimed more than 1 million lives. The virus that caused the pandemic was a blend of avian flu viruses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the disease spread rapidly and was reported in Singapore in February 1957, Hong Kong in April 1957, and the coastal cities of the United States in the summer of 1957. The total death toll was more than 1.1 million worldwide, with 116,000 deaths occurring in the United States. 
  18. AIDS Pandemic, 1981-Present   AIDS has claimed an estimated 35 million lives since it was first identified. HIV, which is the virus that causes AIDS, likely developed from a chimpanzee virus that transferred to humans in West Africa in the 1920s. The virus made its way around the world, and AIDS was a pandemic by the late 20th century. Now, about 64% of the estimated 40 million living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) live in sub-Saharan Africa.  For decades, the disease had no known cure, but medication developed in the 1990s now allows people with the disease to experience a normal life span with regular treatment. Even more encouraging, two people have been cured of HIV as of early 2020.   
  19. H1N1 Swine Flu Pandemic: 2009-2010   The 2009 swine flu pandemic was caused by a new strain of H1N1 that originated in Mexico in the spring of 2009 before spreading to the rest of the world. In one year, the virus infected as many as 1.4 billion people across the globe and killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people, according to the CDC.  he 2009 flu pandemic primarily affected children and young adults, and 80% of the deaths were in people younger than 65, the CDC reported. That was unusual, considering that most strains of flu viruses, including those that cause seasonal flu, cause the highest percentage of deaths in people ages 65 and older. But in the case of the swine flu, older people seemed to have already built up enough immunity to the group of viruses that H1N1 belongs to, so weren't affected as much. A vaccine for the H1N1 virus that caused the swine flu is now included in the annual flu vaccine.   
  20. West African Ebola epidemic: 1970’s ---2016 and recently in 2019  Ebola ravaged West Africa between 2014 and 2016, with 28,600 reported cases and 11,325 deaths. The first case to be reported was in Guinea in December 2013, then the disease quickly spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The bulk of the cases and deaths occurred in those three countries. A smaller number of cases occurred in Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, the United States and Europe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. There is no cure for Ebola, although efforts at finding a vaccine are ongoing. The first known cases of Ebola occurred in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976, and the virus may have originated in bats.   
  21. Zika Virus Epidemic; 2015-present day   The impact of the recent Zika epidemic in South America and Central America won't be known for several years. In the meantime, scientists face a race against time to bring the virus under control. The Zika virus is usually spread through mosquitoes of the Aedes genus, although it can also be sexually transmitted in humans. While Zika is usually not harmful to adults or children, it can attack infants who are still in the womb and cause birth defects. The type of mosquitoes that carry Zika flourish best in warm, humid climates, making South America, Central America and parts of the southern United States prime areas for the virus to flourish.
  22. 2020-??  Corona, originated in Wuhan, China in 2019-2020.   The Corona Virus originated in Wuhan, China, it is thought to have been in study at a viral laboratory in Wuhan, and popular stories say it came from the popular sale of live wild animals, including reptiles and bats.  We note that several of the worst viral pandemics originated in China or the Asian area. News reports suggest that the virus was observed by medical doctors in China, who expressed concern about this virus, but information was suppressed by the Chinese Government in December of 2019, until the virus became so wide spread and deadly, that the government in early 2020 began to release more information about the virus.  China tried to suppress data about the new virus, as is normal throughout history, because we have noted that kings and political leaders often try to suppress the bad news of viral epidemics. This is because an epidemic is not good politics. There goes the rub.  When a health care issue, becomes politicized, it tends to slow and hinder government solutions. The President of the USA was provided numerous written updates and warnings of the viral danger, in late December of 2019 and January of 2020, but ignored these and gave new conference statements that it was “no problem”, stating, “we have only one in America” and later “We have only 13, and they will soon be well”.  As of this writing, (5/13/2020) over 1.3 million Americans have the disease, and 82,000 have died. Projections now suggest that 100,000 to 300,000 Americans could die. World wide millions of people are infected with the virus. President Trump has discounted the dangers and as of this writing 5/13/2020 is encouraging elimination of “mitigation” measures and seeking to reopen the US Economy, despite warnings from the CDC and other agencies that this could increase sickness, suffering and death. In every case, when nations, states or cities, remove social distancing or strong mitigation and prevention efforts, the virus again spreads, causing more sickness and suffering.  


                                                                                                                                                               Places of origin and number of  viral pandemics:

China  6

Rome 2

Africa 3

South America 1

Europe 2

Middle East 1

Mexico 2

Russia 2