Pandemic refers to an outbreak of an infectious disease that spreads across borders. In recent history, flu pandemics are the most common. Further back, bubonic plague was much more prevalent and responsible for devastating the populations of entire countries. The bubonic plague still exists in over 20 countries, while there hasn’t been a case in Europe for over 50 years, or in the United States since 1925. Now, flu epidemics are much more common, and while not as deadly, soon develop into pandemics in packed urban areas and through international travel.
San Francisco Plague. 1900-1904.
This is the first instance of bubonic plague in the United States. Of the initial 121 cases, 119 died. While San Francisco committed to killing as many rats as possible to quell one of the disease’s vectors, scientists discovered the California ground squirrel also carried the infection. As a result, bubonic plague spread across the western United States as the rural plague. (x)
Spanish Flu. 1918-1920
Across the globe, including remote regions in the Arctic and on isolated islands, an outbreak of H1N1 infected 500 million people and caused the deaths of 50-100 million. During World War I, it spread fast because of the close quarters in the trenches and the troop’s malnourishment. In general, the very young and old are most at risk during flu outbreaks, but the Spanish flu seemed to target a disproportionate number of young adults. (x)
Hong Kong Flu. 1968-1969.
An H3N2 virus that began in Hong Kong but soon spread to the United States. Worldwide it killed over a million people. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, first described influenza in 412. Since then there’s been a worldwide flu pandemic every 10-30 years.
Cholera Pandemic. 1852-1860.
There have been seven cholera pandemics throughout history and across the world. This outbreak, considered the most deadly, killed over a million Russians. Hundreds of thousands died in the UK, Spain, and Mexico. The most recent cholera pandemic was in the sixties and seventies affecting Indonesia, India, and Russia. (x)
Plague of Justinian. 541-542.
This is the first recorded outbreak of bubonic plague. It started in Constantinople and moved across Mediterranean port cities. At its worst estimates say it killed between 5,000 and 10,000 people a day. Worldwide 25 million died, and Europe’s population decreased by 50%.
The Black Death. 1346-1353.
This outbreak of the bubonic plague would set off a cycle of European epidemics every few years through the 18th century. Once again, by the 1370s, it reduced England’s population by 50%, with urban areas suffering the most. Now it’s believed fleas travelling on rats aboard ships carried the plague across three continents, killing 75 million people worldwide. (x)