Home   Kent   News   Article

A look back at some of the other pandemics through history including Ebola, SARS and the Great Plague of London

Worldwide, more than 170,000 people have now died of the novel coronavirus known as Covid-19.

Believed to have originated in China, the deadly disease has quickly spread across the globe, resulting in many countries entering a strict lockdown period in an attempt to curb the rise in cases.

The coronavirus has changed life as we knew it
The coronavirus has changed life as we knew it

In the UK, more than 19,000 people have died and more than 143,000 have tested positive for the virus.

It is a strange time for the county, with schools closed and many off work.

Here we take a look at some of the other pandemics which have shaken the country, and indeed the rest of the world, throughout history.

People are urged to keep a safe distance away from each other during the pandemic. Picture: Chris Davey
People are urged to keep a safe distance away from each other during the pandemic. Picture: Chris Davey

Small Pox - Origin unknown-1980

Death toll: 300-500 million

Throughout history, smallpox is thought to have killed between 300-500 million people.

Its origin is unknown, but is believed to date back to the Egyptian Empire around the 3rd century BCE, based on a smallpox-like rash found on three mummies.

The earliest written description of a disease that clearly resembles smallpox appeared in China in the 4th century.

It has spread throughout the world with people in America and Mexico badly affected; it is estimated to have killed 90% of Native Americans.

Statue of Edward Jenner, inventor of the smallpox vaccine, in Boulogne, France
Statue of Edward Jenner, inventor of the smallpox vaccine, in Boulogne, France

It is a very infectious disease caused by one of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor.

The initial symptoms included fever and vomiting. This was followed by formation of sores in the mouth and a skin rash, with fluid-filled lumps appearing, before scabbing over. Some people turned blind.

Smallpox became the first virus pandemic to be ended by a vaccine. In the late 18th-century, a British doctor named Edward Jenner discovered that milkmaids infected with a milder virus called cowpox seemed immune to smallpox.

Jenner famously inoculated his gardener’s nine-year-old son with cowpox and then exposed him to the smallpox virus with no ill effect.

The last naturally occurring case was diagnosed in 1977, and the World Health Organization (WHO) certified the global eradication of the disease in 1980.

Black Death - 1346-1353

Death toll: Up to 200 million

During the 14th century, the plague, known as the Black Death, caused more than 50 million deaths in Europe, and up to 200 million worldwide.

Plague was caused by Yersinia pestis, a zoonotic bacteria usually found in small mammals and their fleas.

Symptoms included fever, headaches, and vomiting.

Swollen and painful lymph nodes also occurred in the area closest to where the bacteria entered the skin and occasionally, these broke open.

People dying during the Black Death in Florence in 1348
People dying during the Black Death in Florence in 1348

Having originated in China, it spread via trade routes across Europe - carried on the fleas of rats which stowed aboard merchant ships.

The first cases in the UK were spotted in June 1348 in the south and south west, but it quickly spread and struck London just a few months later.

With victims highly contagious, once you had contracted the bug it could kill within a week.

It took 200 years for Europe's population to recover to its previous level.

The Black Death was the second plague pandemic recorded, after the Plague of Justinian in the years 542-546, which killed 25 million.

Great Plague of London - 1665-1666

Death toll: Estimated 100,000

The Great Plague is understood to have killed 20% of London's population.

The plague was caused by the same bacteria at the Black Death, Yersinia pestis, which is usually transmitted through the bite of an infected rat flea.

Bodies being collected during the Great Plague of London 1665. Picture: Wikipedia
Bodies being collected during the Great Plague of London 1665. Picture: Wikipedia

At the time, the means of transmission of the disease was not known but thinking it was linked to the animals, dogs and cats were slaughtered.

This decision may have affected the length of the epidemic since those animals could have helped keep in check the rat population carrying the fleas.

Spanish Flu - 1918-1920

Death toll: 50 million

The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history.

It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin.

Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919, with many troops fighting in the First World War becoming infected.

American Red Cross volunteers carry a Spanish flu victim, 1919
American Red Cross volunteers carry a Spanish flu victim, 1919

It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus.

Mortality was high in people younger than 5 years old, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older. The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic.

A second wave of the virus proved more deadly than the first.

Despite the name Spanish Flu, the disease 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.

Asian Flu - 1957-1958

Death Toll: 2 million

A pandemic outbreak of H2N2 avian influenza originated in China in 1957, before spreading to Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, America and the UK.

Over a six month period, 14,000 people died in England.

Asian Flu patients in Sweden. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
Asian Flu patients in Sweden. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

A second wave followed in early 1958, causing an estimated total of about 1.1 million deaths globally, with 116,000 deaths in the United States alone.

A vaccine was developed, effectively containing the pandemic.

Hong Kong Flu - 1968-1970

Death Toll: 1 million

The 1968 pandemic was initiated by the emergence of a virus known as influenza A subtype H3N2. It is suspected that this virus evolved from the strain of influenza that caused the 1957 pandemic.

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.

The 1968 pandemic killed 500,000 residents of Hong Kong, approximately 15% of its population at the time.

Infection caused upper respiratory symptoms typical of flu and symptoms included chills, fever, and muscle pain and weakness.

SARS 2002-2004

Death toll: 774

SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) originated in China in 2002. It's thought that a strain of the coronavirus usually only found in small mammals mutated, enabling it to infect humans.

The SARS infection quickly spread from China to other Asian countries. There were also a small number of cases in several other countries, including four in the UK, plus a significant outbreak in Toronto, Canada.

The SARS pandemic was eventually brought under control in July 2003, following a policy of isolating people suspected of having the condition and screening all passengers travelling by air from affected countries for signs of the infection.

SARS is estimated to have killed nearly 800 people. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
SARS is estimated to have killed nearly 800 people. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

During the period of infection, there were 8,098 reported cases of SARS and 774 deaths. This means the virus killed about 1 in 10 people who were infected.

People over the age of 65 were particularly at risk, with over half of those who died from the infection being in this age group.

In 2004 there was another smaller SARS outbreak linked to a medical laboratory in China. It was thought to have been the result of someone coming into direct contact with a sample of the SARS virus, rather than being caused by animal-to-human or human-to-human transmission.

Swine Flu 2009-2010

Death toll: Estimated 284,000

Swine flu was the name for the virus which was responsible for a global flu outbreak in 2009 to 2010. It's a type of seasonal flu and is now included in the annual flu vaccine.

The scientific name for it is often shortened to "H1N1".

The virus was first identified in Mexico in April 2009. It became known as swine flu because it's similar to flu viruses that affect pigs.

It spread rapidly from country to country because it was a new type of flu virus that few young people were immune to.

Overall, the outbreak was not as serious as originally predicted, largely because many older people were already immune to it. Most cases in the UK were relatively mild, although there were some serious cases.

The relatively small number of cases that led to serious illness or death were mostly in children and young adults - particularly those with underlying health problems - and pregnant women.

On August 10, 2010, the WHO declared the pandemic officially over.

Ebola 2013-2016

Death toll: 11,323

Ebola virus disease (EVD) is a severe, often fatal illness affecting humans and other primates.

The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals, such as fruit bats, porcupines and non-human primates, and then spreads in the human population through direct contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people, and with surfaces and materials contaminated with these fluids.

An illustration depicting the deadly ebola virus surrounding and attacking a healthy cell
An illustration depicting the deadly ebola virus surrounding and attacking a healthy cell

The first EVD outbreaks occurred in remote villages in Central Africa, near tropical rainforests.

The 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa was the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the virus was first discovered in 1976.

There were more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined.

As of May 2016, the WHO reported a total of 28,646 suspected cases and 11,323 deaths.

One person in the UK contracted the disease.

HIV/AIDS 1981 -ongoing

Death Toll: 36 million

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system. If untreated, a person’s immune system will eventually completely deteriorate. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the term used to describe a series of illnesses and infections that people get at the last stage of HIV infection, once the immune system is severely damaged.

Symptoms can initially include a short, flu-like illness, lasting one to two weeks.

But long term, as the infection progressively weakens the immune system, people can develop others, such as weight loss, fever, diarrhoea and cough.

Without treatment, people living with HIV can also develop severe illnesses such as tuberculosis, severe bacterial infections and cancers.

Since 1981, it has killed more than 36 million people.

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.

There is currently no cure, but treatments are available.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

Read more


More by this author


Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More