Pandemics from Middle Ages Till Now

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Anupama Nair

A plague attack (1709-1713)  followed the Great Northern War (1700–1721), between Sweden and the Tsar of Russia and its allies, killing about one hundred thousand in Sweden, and three hundred thousand in Prussia. However, the good news was that this was the last plague in Scandinavia, but the one hundred thousand Russians succumbed to the plague of 1770–1772.

The Great Plague of Marseille (France) was the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in western Europe. In 1720, the disease killed a total of one hundred thousand people. Fifty thousand people were killed in Marseille alone and during the next two years and another fifty thousand in the north. How did it occur? On the fateful day i.e., May 25, 1720, a ship named the Grand Saint-Antoine arrived in the port of Marseille, France, laden with cotton, fine silks, and other goods. The ship carried an invisible cargo the bacteria known as “Yersinia pestis”, and brought about the Great Plague of Provence, the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe.

Then a series of Cholera Pandemics hit the world. The seven cholera pandemics lasted over the next 150 years. The first wave originated in Russia, in 1817, where about one million people died due to infection of the small intestine. Spreading through feces-infected water and food, the British soldiers carried the bacterium to India where million more people died. Where ever the traveled due to the Empire, its navy spread cholera to the rest of the countries like Spain, South Africa, Indonesia, China, Japan, Italy, Germany, and the United States of America, where it killed nearly two million people. A vaccine was created in 1885, but pandemics continued without abating.

The world had just started recovering from the casualties – human lives, property, economy, when a tragedy struck again, this time from another deadly Pandemic. The Spanish Flu, also known as the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, was an unusually deadly caused by the H1N1 (a virus similar to Corona). This virus lasted from February 1918 to April 1920 and infected 500 million people – about one-third of the world's population at the time, in four successive waves. The death toll is estimated to have been somewhere between twenty million and fifty million, while some reports claim one hundred million. Is Covid 19 going on the same path as the US has most Corona casualties followed by India? The infection originated in Kansas (USA) and spread to France, Germany and United Kingdom. In India, the British soldiers carried it, when they came home after the War. The Flu claimed the lives of young people. Some analyses have shown the virus to be particularly deadly because it triggered a cytokine storm, which ravaged the stronger immune system of young adults.

A new strain of influenza virus, called H2N2 was reported in Singapore in 1957 and later spread to China, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Asian Flu is responsible for killing more than one million people across the globe. A second wave, more deadly than the first attacked young children, and pregnant women. Though a vaccine was developed in 1957, it did little to prevent the virus.

This Cholera Pandemic has the record for the longest Pandemic. It started in 1969 and is still continuing till date in different parts of the world. The origin of the Pandemic was Indonesia, which spread to other parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. In the later part of the 20th century, it spread to South America and Zimbabwe. Major outbreaks in Haiti and Yemen affected more than half a million people worldwide. Every year around three million people are affected but are no longer so much deadly now.

Smallpox was once considered a deadly disease and plagued the human race for more than two thousand years was diagnosed in 1977 in Somalia. Starting with a twenty-year vaccination program it was finally eradicated from the world. The elimination of disease, that was considered fatal could be eradicated by the US—Russian cooperation during the Cold War. The vaccination helped in controlling diseases such as polio, measles, diphtheria, and whooping cough.

If all these diseases weren’t enough there were more to come. A new disease conquered the world in 1981, called Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS caused by Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV. By the millennium it killed millions in the United States. In 1996, the United Nations established UNAIDS to coordinate global action. By then infection spread to Africa. Today, nearly forty million people suffer from AIDS and nearly 10 million people died globally.

The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) a strain of coronavirus caused destruction around the world in 2002–2003. Again, China was the birthplace of SARS too. The symptoms were shortness of breath and coughing. SARS spread all around the world. It affected more than eight thousand people. Like Corona, China tried to suppress the news of the virus. The infection spread to humans due to civet cats. A new influenza virus, a strain of H1N1 called Swine Flu in 2009 again was severe. Swine Flu spread due to infections in pigs. From China, it spread to Mexico and the United States. Nearly five million people lost their lives.

SARS- COV2 (coronavirus) originated in bats in the Middle East. It is transmitted to humans in Wuhan’s (China) open wet meat markets. Gradually the virus spread to the whole world killing millions in its wake, destroying lives and livelihoods, etc. It is surprising to hear that this virus was discovered in 1965 and called B814. Corona or Covid 19 was many times more deadly than the SARS infection of 2002-2003. More than 1.6 billion people were affected and three million lost their lives and the list goes on… The US has nearly thirty-three million cases with around six hundred thousand people deaths, followed by India with twenty-six million cases and three hundred thousand deaths. Others are not far behind. Brazil, France, Turkey, Russia, and the United Kingdom are in the race.

Is it a curse that since 1720, the world has been witnessing such killer pandemics every hundred years? The Great Plague (1720-1723), killed one hundred thousand people worldwide. The Cholera Pandemic (1820-1824) killed millions in Asia. In 1920 after the First World War, the Spanish Flu killed nearly 17 million people. Come circa 2020, Corona Virus has killed nearly 3 million people and the list goes on and on. According to historians, “pandemics like COVID-19 strike with eerie precision, every 100 years: 1720 — Plague; 1820 — Cholera outbreak; 1920 — Spanish flu; 2020 — Chinese coronavirus. What’s happening? There is a theory that every 100 years, a pandemic happens. At first glance, nothing seems strange, but the accuracy with which these events take place is scary.”

Looking at the history of Pandemics occurring from time immemorial, haven’t we learned any lessons? Is not time to ensure that such Pandemics do not wipe away the human race? All we can do is to ensure “prevention is better than cure” and control the coronavirus and other such viruses in the future. We can surely try for the world to be a better place. All countries of the world forgetting wars and enmity need to help each other. India showed the way by distributing free vaccines to eighty countries, following the principle of “vasudaiva kudumbakam” and “loka samastha sukino bhavanthu”. When the second wave was severe in India, many other countries reciprocated by sending vaccines and oxygen. This is the way to go forward.

Unfornutately, waves after waves are attacking the people. Lord save this world.

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