One of the greatest and most difficult challenges that have affected the spread of human civilization is that of infectious disease. Wherever humans have gone, so have virulent disease. With the corona virus pandemic wreaking havoc all over the globe, it’s apt to examine the various pandemics that have affected humans in the past. Interestingly, Sushruta Samhita is an ancient text on medicine, surgery and health that was written and compiled by the Vedic physician Sushruta. It was created around 6 century BC, current written text is dated around 6th century CE and passed down through the generations, and is one of the most important medical treatises in existence today. The text refers to virulent outbreaks which are basically the first pandemics. Here are the top 5 devastating pandemics.
1. The Plague of Justinian: The Plague of Justinian is considered the first plague pandemic that struck the world during the years 541-549. It was a devastating outbreak that arrived in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, around 541 CE. It was carried over the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt, which was recently conquered land paying tribute to Emperor Justinian in grain. Plague-ridden fleas hitched a ride on the black rats that snacked on the grain. As people had no knowledge of how to fight this disease, it led to the death of more than 50 million people all over Europe, Asia and Africa. That was around half of the world’s population in those days. The primary reason people survived was probably due to their immunity.
2. Bubonic Plague: Also known as The Black Death, the Bubonic Plague hit Europe around 1347 was the deadliest and most virulent outbreaks of Bubonic plague in the history of the world. It resulted in the deaths of more than 200 million people all over Europe, North Africa and the Mediterranean. Estimates say it killed 30% of the global population. This is also the time when people realized that proximity played an important role for the spread of the disease and started to hold sailors who arrived from foreign lands in ships in isolation for 30-40 days under the new Venetian law as a trentino which later became quarantine.
3. The Great Plague of London: The Bubonic plague resurfaced roughly every 10 years from 1348 to 1665—40 outbreaks in just over 300 years in London. And with each new plague epidemic, 20 percent of the men, women and children living in the British capital were killed. By the early 1500s, England imposed the first laws to separate and isolate the sick. Homes stricken by plague were marked with a bale of hay strung to a pole outside. If you had infected family members, you had to carry a white pole when you went out in public. Cats and dogs were believed to carry the disease, so there was a wholesale massacre of hundreds of thousands of animals. All public entertainment was banned and victims were forcibly shut into their homes to prevent the spread of the disease. Red crosses were painted on their doors along with a plea for forgiveness: “Lord have mercy upon us.”
As cruel as it was to shut up the sick in their homes and bury the dead in mass graves, it may have been the only way to bring the last great plague outbreak to an end.
4. Smallpox: Throughout the Middle Ages and up until the 20th century, smallpox was one disease that kept reappearing in sporadic and deadly epidemics. In the 18th century alone, the smallpox virus managed to decimate the entire population of the world. It was also the first disease to be ended by vaccine. Dr. Edward Jenner discovered that milkmaids who were exposed to cow pores were not affected by the virus and his research helped develop the vaccine for smallpox. You can read about the interesting episode here.
5. Spanish Flu: In the early 20th century, the Spanish Flu pandemic ravaged the world for two whole years. Infecting over 500 million worldwide, the Spanish Flu couldn’t be controlled by medicines or antibiotics and non-pharmaceutical measures like such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings came to help. Estimates suggest that it caused more than 50 million confirmed casualties in countries all over the world.
These are some of the pandemics that have shattered human civilization since the beginning of time. Recently, the world is being plagued by the Corona virus. While many countries and laboratories are claiming advancement towards a viable vaccine, there are some that show promising research. Till then stay safe, avoid public gatherings, maintain good personal hygiene and follow all protocols suggested by the authorities. Stay safe, stay healthy.
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