Pandemics Over The Years A Trip Down Memory Lane

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Anupama Nair

It is more than two years now, we’ve been hearing the word Pandemic and a mere ‘virus’, that originated from China is holding the world hostage. The killer Virus Corona affected millions and killed many more. So, I thought let me do research on the Pandemics over the years and how they impacted the world. Before Corona, there are many Pandemics that almost wiped out the entire human population. Fasten your seat belts, I am taking you on time travel, many millenniums ago.

What is a Pandemic? In the kingdom of infectious diseases, a pandemic is a worst-case scenario. When an epidemic spreads beyond a nation’s borders, that’s when the disease officially becomes a pandemic. Intermittent outbreaks of infectious diseases have had profound and lasting effects on societies throughout history. Those events have powerfully shaped the economic, political, and social aspects of human civilization, with their effects often lasting for centuries. Epidemic outbreaks have defined some of the basic tenets of modern medicine, pushing the scientific community to develop principles of epidemiology, prevention, immunization, and antimicrobial treatments.

In a long succession throughout history, pandemic outbreaks have decimated societies, determining outcomes of wars, wiped out entire populations, but also, paradoxically, cleared the way for innovations and advances in science (including medicine and public health), economy, and political systems. Pandemic outbreaks, or plagues in ancient history, as they are often referred to, have been closely examined in the realm of history, including the history of medicine. In the era of the modern world, plague is however not such a killer pandemic as other diseases.

As civilizations spread, so did pandemics, some of which decimated millions of lives. Communicable diseases existed even during the time of “early men” and when men were hunters, but the shift to agrarian life nearly ten thousand years ago created communities that made epidemics more possible. Malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, influenza, and smallpox were major diseases during this period.

The first recorded epidemic was in China the birthplace of Corona too. Around 5000 years ago, an epidemic wiped out a pre-historic village in China. It is said that 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-aged were found inside the house. The site is now called "Hamin Mangha" and is one of the best-preserved pre-historic sites in northeastern China. Before the discovery of “Hamin Mangha”, another pre-historic mass burial site was discovered, believed to be of the same period called “Miaozigou”, in northeastern China. These discoveries prove that an epidemic ravaged the entire region. 

Greece was the next venue. In 430 B.C., just before the war between Athens and Sparta began, an epidemic ravaged the people of Athens and lasted for five years. Reports stated around one hundred thousand people lost their lives. The Greek historian Thucydides 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". There are varied causes for the epidemic, some scientists say typhoid, while others say it was Ebola. Many scholars believed that overcrowding due to the war worsened the epidemic. The spartan army was stronger, thereby 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 till  Athens conceded defeat to Sparta.

Let us now travel to Rome. It was another outbreak that occurred a couple of centuries later that was documented and recorded by contemporary physicians of the time. It was the first recorded Pandemic, which affected many countries. The outbreak was known as the Antonine Plague of 165–180 AD. The Antonine plague occurred in the Roman Empire during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161–180 A.D.) and the cause is thought to be smallpox.

The disease was brought into the Roman Empire by soldiers returning from Seleucia (now in Turkey), and before it declined, it had impacted Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and Italy. Unlike the plague of Athens, which affected a limited area, the Antonine plague spread across the vast territory of the great Roman Empire. Nearly one-third of the population was wiped out, and also annihilated the Roman army. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius himself lost his life.

Now let us visit Ethiopia. The Cyprian Plague (250-262 AD) described as “the end of the world”, started in Ethiopia and passed through North Africa, then onto Egypt and Rome. The city dwellers fled to the villages, further spreading the infection. The impact of the disease was felt in the next three centuries and saw recurring outbreaks, including in Britain in 444 AD. At the peak of the disease nearly five thousand deaths were reported in Rome alone.

Egypt is the next place to visit. First appearing in Egypt, the plague called Justinian plague spread through Palestine and the Byzantine Empire, and then throughout the Mediterranean region. The plague changed the course of the Roman Empire. The emperor Justinian's dream to bring the Roman Empire back together was crushed and it caused massive economic problems. Recurrences over the next two centuries eventually killed about fifty million people, which was roughly twenty-six percent of the world population. It is believed to be the first significant appearance of the bubonic plague, which is spread by rats and fleas.

Leprosy, though a killer disease for many centuries, grew into a pandemic in Europe in the Middle Ages, resulting in the building of numerous leprosy-related hospitals to treat a large number of patients. Leprosy was caused due to a slow-developing bacterial disease that causes sores and deformities. Leprosy was believed to be a punishment from God and this belief led to moral judgments and ostracization of victims.

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