A pandemic is an infectious disease which has spread quickly across a large geographical area - from multiple countries to continents or even worldwide. Throughout history, there have been a number of contagious viruses which have afflicted millions of people. Pandemics are the spread of a new disease, but these diseases come in all shapes and sizes. Some can be in foods, such as salmonella and E. coli, some are passed from insects or animals, and some come in the form of influenza viruses.
The Black Death
The most infamous pandemic and most obliterating of all time is the Black Death. It wiped out 60 percent of Europe’s population with a further 75 million killed in Asia. The outbreak occurred between 1346-1353 and spread through the agencies of black rats who carried a bacterium called Yersinia pestis – the bacteria which caused the plague. Compared to other types of rats, black rats liked to inhabit close to humans, which increased the danger of humans becoming infected. During this time, living conditions were also poor with many living in dirty and cramped spaces – which didn’t deter rats in the slightest. This bacterium then spread to fleas which occupied the rat’s bodies. The same bacteria would kill off the rats within 14 days, meaning the hungry fleas had to feed off something else – humans. This is when a bite from the infected flea would swell to become a bubo. From then, the plague could also be passed form human to human through a droplet from a simple cough. From epidemic to pandemic, it is thought the plague was able to quickly spread by these flea ridden rats on ships. This gave a gateway for the disease to spread almost worldwide.
The symptoms of the disease - which would have had you dead in a week – included chills, a high fever, seizures, vomiting, headaches, smooth yet painful lymph nodes which would appear on the body, and gangrene. The buboes were most commonly found under the armpits, on the thighs, and around the neck and groin, whilst the gangrene would target fingers, toes, lips and the nose. Gangrene prematurely kills the cells in extremities of the bodies, rendering the area practically dead it then turns black in colour.
At times, carts of dead humans would be seen travelling through town due to the sheer amount of people passing away. In the beginning, wooden coffins with a red cross depicted on the front would be used for victims who died of the bubonic plague, but as disease spread, mass burial pits were made. People were dying faster than coffins could be constructed. Despite there being plague doctors, which are highly infamous for their beak-like head piece, at this time, there was no treatment for the bubonic plague, which left much of Europe helpless.
The plague still lives today, despite many assuming its extinction. There are around 650 cases reported per year, but due to anti-biotics, the death toll comes in at only 10% of that figure.
The HIV/AIDS Pandemic
Since the pandemic began, upwards of 40 million people have died at the hands of HIV and AIDS. In countries all over the world, the death toll and infection rate can be upwards of thousands or even millions. In the early 1980’s, AIDS was first identified as a new disease when young homosexual men started contracting strange infections. A decade later the disease became a pandemic cause. Human Immunodeficiency virus type (HIV-1) was discovered to be the cause of AIDS. HIV-1 is contracted through sexual intercourse, passed on at birth or percutaneous. HIV damages cells in one’s immune system, leaving you less likely to survive everyday infections. Once HIV has severely damaged an immune system, life threatening illnesses can occur - this is called AIDS. AIDS cannot be passed on from one human to another, whilst the HIV virus can.
Back in the 80's there was limited treatment for the illness, and whilst there is still no cure for HIV, there are treatments that can allow people to live a long and normal life, yet millions are affected every year. The main symptoms of HIV include a flu-like sickness which can last for 2 weeks, but there aren’t many symptoms when contracting the virus, and it can go unnoticed for years – causing damage to one’s immune system. High-risk people include men who have sex with men and people who share injecting equipment such as needle or syringes. Yet, when infected, the virus is found in the semen, vaginal and anal fluids, blood and breast milk.
To help prevent your chances of contracting aids - use a condom, don’t share needles and if you think you may have contracted the disease seek immediate help as the best way to live a normal life is to begin treatment within 24 hours.
There are regular seasonal epidemics of influenza, the flu we can get in winter which gives us achy muscles and a runny nose, but over the past 300 years, there have been around nice flu pandemics.
When a new influenza virus occurs, it can be spread around the world 6-9 months, and with the developing speed of air travel today and the sheer amount of people travelling from different sides of the earth, it is expected that this figure could become much smaller. Influenza viruses can emerge from the passing of the disease from bird to human, called avian influenza. Other ways for an influenza disease to arise is when two influenza cells merge, creating a new cell or ‘sub-type’ of a virus which humans have little or no immunity to. A virus can also remain hidden and re-emerge as a pandemic virus when the immunity of the population has lessened.
Spanish Flu 1912-1920
It is believed that 50-100 million people died during the two years that a severe Influenza A virus struck the earth. The death toll of the Spanish Flu is close to that of The Black Death, marking it “the greatest medical holocaust in history”. The virus was so powerful it caused hemorrhages and serious lung issues.
The Asian Flu, originating in China, set in motion when a virus from wild ducks combined with a human strain formed. The flu spread from China to Singapore, to Hong Kong, to the US in a matter of months and the elderly were particularly prone to it. The illness killed between 1 and 4 million citizens.
H1N1 Flu Pandemic 2009-2010 (Swine Flu)
The most recent flu pandemic was as recent as 2009. High-risk groups in the UK included those with asthma, diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Pregnant people and those who had a weak immune system were also more prone to Swine Flu. The illness could be fatal to those infected, in just 3-5 days it could leave people with respiratory failure. The first instance of Swine Flu was discovered from passengers returning from Mexico to the UK, it had spread to another human within 1 month. Usual seasonal flu injections did little to no help with the immunity of Swine Flu and people began to wear face masks. There were 9,000 cases of swine flu in the UK alone, with 15 of those people sadly passing away. Elsewhere around the world, there were a total of 18,000 deaths.
The virus was a new strain of H1N1 which resulted in an assortment of bird, swine and human flu mixed with a Eurasian pig flu virus, which led to the pandemics term – Swine Flu.