I like history. Nay, I love it. It makes us look back into the past, use it to determine the presence, and peer into the future. Throughout human existence, man has been continually assailed by plagues and epidemics, most often changing the natural order of events. Entire civilisations had been wiped out by plagues and epidemics, starting from pre-historic times. We shall, in this write-up, deal with some of the plagues that have ravaged mankind throughout history. We however do not learn from history. Like the Bourbons of European history who learnt nothing and forgot nothing (leading to the Second World War (1939-1945) even after the January 28, 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Paris, France, mankind appears to have learnt nothing.
Epidemic, pandemic, plague: The difference
An epidemic is an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographical area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. In an epidemic situation, a disease spreads rapidly.
On the other hand, a pandemic (a term just attached to COVID-19 by the World Health Organisation [WHO]) relates to geographic spread and describes a disease that affects a whole country or the entire world.
A plague is a contagious bacterial disease characterised by fever and delirium, usually with the formation of infection of the lungs (pneumonic plague). It also takes high mortality rate. In Exodus, the Passover story of the Bible tells us about plagues after Pharaoh refused Moses entreaties to let His enslaved Israeli people go free. God showed anger by sending 10 deadly plagues to warn Pharaoh, who on each occasion, promised to let the Israelites go; only to renege, until the last one. The ten plagues were water turning into blood; frogs; lice; flies; livestock pestilence; boils; hail; locusts; darkness; and, the killing of the first born children.
Some of the most devastating plagues in history have been yellow fever, tuberculosis, cholera, bubonic plague, smallpox and influenza, all of which were appropriately described as pandemics. The latest is COVID-19.
Circa 3000 B.C.
An epidemic had wiped out a prehistoric village about 5000 years ago in China. An archaeological site now called “Hamin Mangha” in North Eastern China, showed the skeletons of young adults, juveniles and middle-aged people who were burnt and stuffed inside a house. Studies showed that the epidemic happened so quickly that there was not enough time for proper burials. The site was never inhabited after that. But before Hamin Mangha, was “Miaozigou” (same North Eastern China), which was discovered to be another prehistoric mass burial site, about the same period as that of Hamin Mangha.
Plague of Athens
During the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, typhoid fever exterminated one-quarter of the Athenian troops and another quarter of the entire population over a period of four years. The exact cause was unknown about this disease whose wider spread was curtailed, ironically, by the faster rate it killed its infested hosts; thus preventing further spread. It ravaged the people (as written by Greek historian, Thucydides (460-400 B.C.) through sudden heat in the head, redness and inflammation of the eyes, the throat and tongue, “becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath”. It was only in January, 2006, that researchers of the University of Athens confirmed the presence of bacteria as the cause. This, they got from teeth of dead people excavated from mass graves which were subsequently analysed.
The Antonine plague was believed to be either smallpox or measles. It recorded a death toll of over 5 million people in the Roman Empire. When soldiers returned to the Roman Empire from campaigning, they brought back more than the spoils of victory. Many historians believe that the epidemic was first brought into the Roman Empire by soldiers returning home from Mesopotamia about 165 A.D., after a war against Parthia. The epidemic contributed to the end of the Pax Romana (the Roman Peace), a period from 27 B.C. to A.D. 180, when Rome was at the zenith of its power. Instability later grew after A.D. 180, throughout the Roman Empire. More civil wars and invasions by “barbarian” groups were experienced. Christianity became increasingly popular in the time after the plague occurred, perhaps, for fear of the unknown.
Plague of Cyprian
The plague of Cyprian was named after St. Cyprian, a Bishop of Carthage (a city in Tunisia) who described the epidemic as signalling the end of the world. The Plague of Cyprian is estimated to have killed 5,000 people a day in Rome alone. In 2014, Archaeologists in Luxor discovered what appeared to be a mass burial site of plague victims. Their bodies were covered with a thick layer of lime (which was historically used as a disinfectant). They also discovered three kilns used to manufacture lime and the remains of plague victims who were burned in a giant bonfire.
Experts are, however, not quite sure what disease caused the epidemic; “The bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength [and] a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces (an area of the mouth),” Cyprian wrote in Latin in a work called “De mortalitate” (translation by Philip Schaff from the book “Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1885).
Plague of Justinan
The death toll from this plague was a frightening 25 million people. It was caused by bubonic plague. It was believed to have killed half of the European population. The plague afflicted the Byzantine Empire and the Mediterranean Port cities. The city of Constantinople was devastated. 5000 people died per day, resulting in the death of 40% of Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire was ravaged by the bubonic plague, which marked the start of its decline. The plague reoccurred periodically afterward. Some estimates suggest that up to 10% of the world’s population died.
The plague is named after the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian (reigned A.D. 527-565). Under his reign, the Byzantine Empire reached its peak of power, controlling territories that stretched from the Middle East to Western Europe. Justinian constructed a great cathedral known as Hagia Sphia (“Holy Wisdom”) in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the empire’s capital. Justinian also got sick with the plague and survived. However, his empire gradually lost territory in the time after the plague struck, and lost its past glory.
The Black death (1346-1353)
The Black death killed an astonishing over 200 million people in just four years. The Black death travelled from Asia to Europe, leaving devastation in its wake. Some estimates suggest that it wiped out over half of Europe’s population. It was caused by a strain of the bacterium Yersinia pestis that is likely extinct today and was spread by fleas on infected rodents. The bodies of victims were buried in mass deaths.
The plague was to change the course of Europe’s history, as labour became harder to find, bringing about better pay for workers and the end of Europe’s system of serfdom. Studies suggest that surviving workers had better access to meat and higher-quality bread. The lack of cheap labour may also have contributed to quick technological innovations and advancement. It was believed it had to do with close proximity of people, which was why the infected were first isolated in ships for 30 days, and later extended to 40 days (quarantino). This is the origin of the practice of quarantine in the Western world, which has today become worldwide.
This infection that caused the cocoliztli epidemic came by way of viral hemorrhagic fever. It killed a whopping 15 million inhabitants of Mexico and Central America. These were people already weakened by extreme drought. The disease therefore proved to be utterly catastrophic. “Cocoliztli” is the Aztec word for “pest.”
A recent study that examined DNA from the skeletons of victims discovered that the people were infected with a subspecies of Salmonella known as S. paratyphi C, which causes enteric fever. This is a category of fever that includes typhoid. Enteric fever can cause high fever, dehydration and gastrointestinal problems. It is still a major health threat till date.
European Explorers exported to the Americas, the American Plagues. This was a cluster of Eurasian diseases. These illnesses, including smallpox, contributed to the collapse of the great Inca and Aztec civilizations. Some estimates suggest that 90% of the indigenous population in the Western Hemisphere was killed by this deadly plague.
The outbreak of the diseases helped a Spanish force led by Hernán Cortés, to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1519. It also aided another Spanish force led by Francisco Pizarro to conquer the Incas in 1532. The Spanish seized the territories of both Empires. In both cases, the Aztec and Incan armies had been so ravaged by disease that they were unable to withstand the Spanish forces. When citizens of Britain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands began exploring, conquering and settling the Western Hemisphere, they were also helped by the fact that the American plague had vastly reduced the size of any indigenous groups that opposed them.
Great plague of London
The Black Death’s last major outbreak in Great Britain caused a mass exodus from London, led by King Charles II. The great plague, which started in April, 1665, spread rapidly through the hot summer months. Fleas from plague-infected rodents were one of the main causes of transmission. By the time the plague ended, about 100,000 people, including 15% of the population of London, had died. London never really caught a break from the Black Death. The plague continuously resurfaced roughly every 20 years from 1348 to 1665. This averaged 40 outbreaks in 300 years. With each new plague epidemic, 20 percent of the men, women and children living in the British capital perished.
By the early 1500s, England imposed the first laws to quickly separate and isolate the sick from the well. Because cats and dogs were also believed to carry the disease, there was a wholesale massacre of hundreds of thousands of these animals in London.
The Great Plague of 1665 was the last and one of the worst of the centuries-long plague outbreaks, killing 100,000 Londoners in just seven months. 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 forcibly keep the sick in a lockdown, quarantined in their homes, and also bury the dead in mass graves, it may have been the only way to bring the last plague outbreak to an end. It must be pointed out however, that this was not the end of that city’s suffering. On September 2, 1666, the Great Fire of London started, lasting for four days and burning down a large portion of the city. (To be continued).
Thought for the week
“Extreme remedies are very appropriate for extreme diseases.” (Hippocrates)