Hard Facts

The numbers and ongoing story when it comes to plagues, pandemics, responses, and recoveries throughout history.

Photo courtesy of Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine

Plagues and pandemics have ravaged humanity throughout its existence, and yet, here we are. Below are some of the worst—and how humans clawed their way out of them not only to stasis but also to health (as hopefully we’ll do in this pandemic). 

April 14, 2020
America’s top political figure announces plans to stop funding the World Health Organization. 

April 17, 2020
Said leader encourages some state to lift restrictions meant to contain COVID-19. 

April 21, 2020
Officials discover earlier coronavirus cases—on February 14 and 15—in California. And as of the printing of this magazine, the scenario continues to change daily. 

16th Century
A 100-year period, according to anthropologists, when a cluster of diseases brought to the Americas by European explorers and including smallpox, contributed to the collapse of the Inca and Aztec civilizations. One result: The Euros had a much easier time conquering and settling (read: ravaging and stealing) the Western Hemisphere. Yay. Not. 

Photo from Wiki Commons, courtesy of Svartaregndroppar/CC BY-SA

430 BCE
Roughly the year 100,000 Athenians died, in an epidemic that started during the war between Athens and Sparta and lasted five years. “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,” wrote the Greek  historian Thucydides. Modern-day scientists postulate that it could have been anything from typhoid fever to Ebola (our worst nightmare). Good news: The outbreak came about 300 years before the “culture” that inlcuded the poet Homer (according to writer Adam Nicholson)  arrived, so we still got The Iliad and The Odyssey

Victims who died of bubonic plague, or The Black Death, in the pandemic that started in 1347 and has lingered on for centuries, with the most recent outbreak in Madagascar in 2017 killing 2,300 people. Scientists say the bacterial infection, which is found in rodents and their fleas, readily jumps from them to humans. The children’s song “Ring a Ring o’ Roses,” which American kids subsequently butchered to “Ring Around the Rosies,” had several meanings, but since the Second World War, it’s been associated with The Great Plague. A rosy rash was a symptom of the plague, and posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and “all fall down” was exactly what millions did. After death, victims’ bodies were cremated and their houses burned (“ashes, ashes”). Fun stuff. 

Two Years
Length of the 1918 Flu Pandemic, caused by an H1N1 virus with genes most likley of avian origin. Although there is no universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it was first identified in military personnel in the spring of 1918. An estimated 500 million, or one-third of the world population, became infected with the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control, while the 1918 H1N1 virus has been synthesized and evaluated, the properties that made it so devastating are not well understood. With no vaccine to protect against influenza infection and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections that can be associated with influenza infections, control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations on public gatherings, which were applied unevenly. Sound familiar? Let’s hope we don’t come close to those 1918 numbers. 

Number of pandemics disastrous enough to be listed in the “Worst Pandemics in History” list on livescience.com.

3020 BCE
Roughly the year an epidemic, the type unknown, wiped out a prehistoric village in China. It wasn’t that big, because the find included just 97 human bodies—juveniles, young adults, and adults—and the site was described as “smaller than a modern-day squash court.” Although an anthropological team at Jilin University in China surmised, “The dead came in faster than they could be buried. The human bone accumulation was formed because ancient humans put remains into the house successively and stacked centrally.” The mass death “possibly related to an outbreak of an acute infectious disease.” 

Spanish Flu Redux?

In September of 1919, after city officials insisted mounting fatalities were not the “Spanish flu,” but rather just the normal flu, hosting a parade which tens of thousands attended, 200,000 people became sickened by the disease. And by March of 1919 (date echo another?), 15,000 citizens of Philadelphia were dead. 

But hope abides…

In the Summer of 1919, the Spanish Flu pandemic ended, as those who were infected either died or developed immunity. Word is still out about whether we will for COVID-19, however, with some scientists saying that some antibody tests have not been validated, that even those that have been can still provide false results, and that an accurate positive test may be hard to interpret because the virus is so new that researchers cannot say for sure what sort of results will signal immunity or how long it will last.

So be smart, everyone, because how long this pandemic will last is anyone’s guess. 

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