History teaches us that as long as there’s been progress and development, there have been diseases and illnesses. As humans have spread across the world, so have infectious diseases. The growth of civilization marked by trade routes, immigration, and technological advances, has also allowed for the growth of infections around the world.

The novel coronavirus that we’re dealing with in the present, by no means small or insignificant, is another outbreak in a long list of outbreaks that humanity has faced over the years. This current pandemic shows us that we’re still vulnerable, and we can only avoid future outbreaks by studying the past ones.

What Is A Pandemic?

A pandemic is an outbreak of infectious disease that occurs over a wide geographical area and affects a significant size of the population. Usually, epidemics can change to pandemics when they spread from the confines of one country to another, even affecting most of them at the same time.

A pandemic is marked in waves: a post-pandemic phase may show decrease in the number of affected persons, and then be followed by another wave of increased infection rates. It’s hard to chart the progress of a pandemic without reliable data, but scientists can predict approximately the graph of the pandemic waves.

Long before we had COVID-19, humanity had dealt with these significant pandemics which have helped us understand the the start of certain preventive measures:

1) The Plague of Justinian (541-542 AD)

Sources differ on the time frame of this plague. Named after the emperor Justinian, this plague almost decimated the Byzantine empire. It came to Constantinople, the capital of the empire, from Egypt. Since the territory of Egypt was conquered by the emperor, the citizens would pay tribute (the modern equivalent of taxes) in the form of gold and grain. The ships would carry the grain, which the flea ridden rats snacked on.

The death toll of this plague amounted to almost 50 million people and wiped out most of the smaller cities surrounding Egypt and North Africa. Many historians claim that the plague died itself out because the survivors built immunity against it.

2) The Black Plague (1347-1352)

The plague never really went away and returned in the 14th century with a new strain that almost wiped out half of the European population. It was caused by the strain of the bacterium Yersinia pestis that is likely extinct today and was spread by fleas carried by rodents. These rodents arrived at the shores of the European continent on merchant ships which were transporting goods across the sea.

Many scientists and historians claim that it was during this time the concept of “quarantine” was used as a legitimate preventative measure. People back then lacked the scientific understanding to know how it was caused, but they observed that the disease spread through proximity. Many officials of the Venetian ports isolated the sailors on their ships for 30 days which was called trentino. Afterwards the period was increased to 40 days called quarantino which is where the word quarantine comes from.

3) Smallpox (1520)

Much like the plague, the smallpox virus kept cropping up in Asia and Europe, a persistent menace that killed 1 in 3 people infected.
Centuries later, smallpox became the first virus pandemic to be eliminated by a vaccine. In the late 18th century, a doctor named Edward Jenner developed the vaccine for the same by observing that the milkmaids exposed to cowpox had an immunity to smallpox.

It took almost two centuries but the World Health Organization announced in 1980 that the virus smallpox had been completely eradicated.

4) Cholera

In the mid 19th century, this disease tore through the streets of London, killing tens of thousands of people. Many doctors of the time claimed that it was caused due to dirty air which they called “miasma”. However, a British doctor named John Snow suspected that it was London’s drinking water that was causing the outbreak.
He was determined to get to the bottom of the cause and diligently went through hospital records and tracked the number of cases that were emerging. By creating a geographic chart of the infected people, he narrowed down the area to a pump near Broad Street. He was able to convince the officials to remove the pump, and the city noticed a fall in the cases.
While Dr. Snow’s efforts didn’t cure cholera completely, it was a first for cementing the importance of public health and sanitation.

5) H1N1 (2009-2010)

The 2009 swine flu epidemic was caused by a new strain of H1N1 that originated in Mexico, before spreading to the rest of the world. According to the CDC, it infected almost 1.4 billion and claimed the lives of almost 500,000 people. It primarily affected young people and it was observed that older people had already built up an immunity to the earlier strains of the virus. This is why they weren’t affected as much.
A vaccine for the H1N1 virus is now included in the annual flu vaccine.

All pandemics in the past seemed to be the end of the world. Yet, humanity survived through the worst of it. The doctors and medical persons at the time expended all their efforts into trying to find a cure for the diseases. While their efforts are monumental, it’s important to note that the citizens also played their part in ensuring that it didn’t spread far. This is something that we, as people and as citizens, must remember to do as well.

Keeping yourself healthy should be a priority. If you’re worried about risk of infection and crowded waiting rooms, use TABIIB to consult a doctor online. 

I am a writer, covering the sprawling expanse of healthcare, among many other things that I love writing on. I write on healthcare because I want to do my part in informing people about the health industry, When I am not blogging about research and medicine, I enjoy reading, playing squash and backpacking around the world.