Last week, we x-rayed the meaning of plague, epidemic and pandemic. We further examined some of the past plagues that had ravaged many parts of Mother Earth. The latest is COVID-19. The battle to contain COVID-19, which has already infected more than two million people, continues to overwhelm health services and severely impacts the global economy. Everywhere, the world is facing one of the worst health, economic and political crises it has seen in decades. Sadly, this is a shared reality, a calamity that has hit, and unites, us all to fight this common enemy. Today, we shall continue our discourse on other plagues that had humbled mankind and its many inventions – scientific, medical, technological, et al.
Great Plague of Marseille (1720-1723)
Historical records state that the Great Plague of Marseille started when a ship called “Grand-Saint-Antoine” docked in Marseille, France, carrying a cargo of goods from the eastern Mediterranean. Although the ship was quarantined, the plague nonetheless got into the city, most likely through fleas on plague-infected rodents.
The plague quickly spread, and killed as many as 100,000 people over the next three years in Marseille and surrounding areas. It is estimated that up to 30% of the population of Marseille may have perished.
Russian Plague (1770-1772)
The Russian Plague exterminated over 100,000 people. Citizens were quarantined in Moscow, which had been terribly ravaged by the plague. The terror of quarantined citizens erupted into violence. Riots spread through the city and culminated in the murder of Archbishop Ambrosius, who had encouraged crowds not to gather for worship.
The empress of Russia, Catherine II (also called Catherine the Great), was so desperate to contain the plague and restore public order that she issued a hasty decree, ordering that all factories be moved from Moscow. Even after the plague ended, Catherine struggled to restore order.
Third cholera pandemic (1852-1860)
Before the Third Cholera Pandemic was the Philadelphia Yellow Fever Pandemic from mosquitoes that killed over 5,000 people. Generally considered the deadliest of the seven cholera pandemics, the third major outbreak of cholera in the 19th century lasted from 1852 to 1860. Like the first and second pandemics, the third cholera pandemic originated in India, spreading from the Ganges River Delta before tearing through Asia, Europe, North America and Africa and ending the lives of over a million people. British physician, John Snow, while working in a poor area of London, tracked cases of cholera and eventually succeeded in identifying contaminated water as the means of transmission for the disease. Unfortunately, the same year as his discovery (1854) went down as the worst year of the pandemic, in which 23,000 people died in Great Britain. There were later to be the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th cholera outbreaks.
The Russian or Asiatic Flu Pandemic (1889-1890)
Believed to be of avian origin or influenza A virus type (H2N2), the “Asiatic flu” or “Russian flu” took just five weeks to reach its peak, killing over one million people. In the modern industrial age, new transport links and rapid population growth in the 19th century made it easier for influenza viruses to wreak havoc. In just a few months, the disease spanned the globe. It was the first true epidemic in the era of bacteriology; so, much was learnt from it.
The earliest cases were reported in Russia. The virus spread rapidly throughout St. Petersburg before it quickly made its way throughout Europe and the rest of the world, despite the fact that air travel did not then exist.
American polio epidemic (1916)
Polio, short for poliomyelitis, or infantile paralysis, is an infectious disease caused by poliovirus. It causes muscle weakness, resulting in the inability to move. A polio epidemic that started in New York City caused 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths in the United States. The disease mainly affected children and sometimes left survivors with permanent disabilities.
Polio epidemics occurred sporadically in the United States until the Salk vaccine was developed in 1954. As the vaccine became widely available, cases in the United States declined. The last polio case in the United States was reported in 1979. Worldwide vaccination efforts have greatly reduced the disease, although it is not yet completely eradicated.
Spanish flu pandemic (1918-1920)
Between 1918 and 1920, a disturbingly deadly outbreak of influenza tore across the globe, infecting over a third of the world’s population and ending the lives of between 20 to 50 million people. Of the 500 million people infected in the 1918 pandemic from the South Seas to the North Pole, the mortality rate was estimated at 10% to 20%, with up to 25 million deaths in the first 25 weeks alone. What separated the 1918 flu pandemic from other influenza outbreaks was that one-fifth of those infected died, with some indigenous communities pushed to the brink of extinction. The flu’s spread and lethality was enhanced by the cramped conditions of soldiers and poor wartime nutrition that many people were experiencing during World War 1.
Despite the name Spanish Flu, the disease likely did not start in Spain. Spain was a neutral nation during the war and did not enforce strict censorship of its press, which could, therefore, freely publish early accounts of the illness. As a result, people falsely believed the illness was specific to Spain, and the name Spanish Flu stuck.
Asian Flu (1957-1958)
The Asian Flu pandemic was another global showing for influenza. With its roots in China from 1957 to 1958, the disease claimed more than 2 million lives. The virus that caused the pandemic was a blend of avian flu viruses.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the disease spread rapidly and travelled from the Chinese province of Guizhou, to Singapore in February 1957, Hong Kong in April 1957, and the coastal cities of the United States in the summer of 1957. The total death toll was more than 2 million worldwide, with 116,000 deaths occurring in the United States alone.
The Hong Kong flu pandemic (1968)
A category 2 flu pandemic sometimes referred to as “the Hong Kong Flu” was caused by the H3N2 strain of the influenza A virus, a genetic offshoot of the H2N2 subtype. From the first reported case on July 13, 1968, in Hong Kong, it took only 17 days before outbreaks of the virus were reported in Singapore and Vietnam, and within three months had spread to the Philippines, India, Australia, Europe and the United States. While the 1968 pandemic had a comparatively low mortality rate (.5%), it still resulted in the deaths of more than a million people, including 500,000 residents of Hong Kong, approximately 15% of its population at the time.
AIDS pandemic and epidemic (1981-present day)
AIDS – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). It damages the immune system and interferes with the body’s ability to fight infections and diseases. AIDS has claimed an estimated 36 million lives since it was first identified. HIV, which is the virus that causes AIDS, likely developed from a chimpanzee virus that transferred to humans in West Africa in the 1920s. The virus made its way around the world, and AIDS was a pandemic by the late 20th century. It peaked between 2005-2012. Now, about 64% of the estimated 40 million people living with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa.
For decades, the disease had no known cure, but medication developed in the 1990s now allows people with the disease to experience a normal lifespan with regular treatment. Even more encouraging, two people have been cured of HIV as of early 2020.
West African Ebola epidemid (2014-2016)
Preceding the Ebola outbreak was the H1N1 Swine Flu of 2009-2010. The Ebola epidemic was an infectious and frequently fatal disease, characterised by fever and sever internal bleeding. It spread through contact with infected fluids by a filo virus called Ebola virus. Ebola ravaged West Africa between 2014 and 2016, with 28,600 reported cases and 11,325 deaths. The first case to be reported was in Guinea in December 2013. The disease quickly spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The bulk of the cases and deaths occurred in those three countries. A smaller number of cases occurred in Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, the United States and Europe, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
There is no cure for Ebola, although efforts at finding a vaccine are ongoing. The first known cases of Ebola occurred in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976, and the virus may have originated in bats.
Zika virus epidemic (2015-present day)
The Zika virus is a member of the family “Flaviviradae”. Its name is derived from the Zika forest of Uganda, where the virus was first isolated in 1947. The Zika epidemic thrives in Africa, South America and Central America. The Zika virus is usually spread through mosquitoes of the Aedes genus, that thrives in warm, humid climates, although it can also be sexually transmitted in humans.
And now, COVID-19
Fellow Nigerians, pray hard. Like its predecessors, COVID-19 will again evaporate into historical oblivion.
Thought for the week
“You can have an epidemic in a state. You can have it in a region. You can have it in a country where the critical level of disease passes a certain threshold, and we call that an epidemic threshold.” (Anthony Fauci)