For a disease epidemic to achieve the illustrious status of being pandemic, it needs to do a little globetrotting. It needs to spread from person to person, from country to country. Well, with cases of Swine flu, which originated in Mexico, turning up in the U.S., Canada, Spain, New Zealand, the U.K. and the Middle East, the World Health Organization has raised the global pandemic alarm to 4 out of a 6 phase system. Phase 4 is described as: Verified human-to-human transmission able to cause community-level outbreaks. Significant increase in risk of a pandemic. [via highestfive]
The Swine flu is a descendant of the Spanish flu, a worldwide spread of influenza which killed millions. Health officials are doing everything they can to prepare for any advances the Swine flu makes towards a level 6 pandemic, and while casualties have only reached 150 people, let’s have a look at five of the deadliest pandemics this planet has ever witnessed.
They were brave warriors who vastly outnumbered their European invaders. They were no match however, for Old World diseases like smallpox, which wiped out 90 to 95% of the native population inhabiting the Americas. In the last hundred years, smallpox has caused the deaths of over 300 million people across the globe. Throughout the 18th century it killed over 60 million people in Europe alone. And according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 15 million contracted the disease and two million died as recently as 1967 (source).
Smallpox, which only exists in humans, has been decimating populations for thousands of years. It is said to have begun in Egypt nearly four thousand years ago, and as people began to travel the world they began to spread the disease to India, China, Japan, Europe, America, and even Australia. It causes sufferers to have fluid filled blisters in their throats, mouths, and on their skin. Depending on the constitutions of the carrier, smallpox would lead to blindness, disfigurement, and death. Of the two types of smallpox, Variola major and Variola minor, the former causes most of the casualties as the rashes are more extreme and the fever much higher.
In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner in England discovered that by inoculating a young boy with the fluid from a cowpox lesion, the young boy became immune to smallpox. He is credited with the world’s first “vaccination,” as the word comes from the Latin word “vacca” meaning cow. Smallpox was declared eradicated on May 8th, 1980.
When a human eats food or drinks water that has been infected with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, he or she can be dead in less than 4 hours without the proper treatment. The cholera disease attacks the lining of the small intestine and causes incredible amounts of diarrhea, vomiting, fever, dehydration, a critical drop in blood pressure, exhaustion and death.
The first outbreak of cholera reared its nasty head in 1817 in Calcutta, after the great Kumbh festival at Hardwar in the Upper Ganges of India. The festival attracted thousands of people from all over the country. Pilgrims from the Lower Bengal brought the bacterium to the party, and as they relieved themselves in the Ganges River, which was shared by everybody during the three month festival, they started a pandemic which would spread to the four corners of the earth. Travellers were literally bringing boatloads of the disease from port to port as they sailed the oceans from country to country. During the 19th century alone Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America all reported death tolls from the hundreds of thousands, to the millions as a result of cholera. India got hit the hardest however, with estimated deaths of nearly 40 million people.
The prize for the Most Globally Devastating Epidemic goes to the influenza or Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919. Just as World War I was coming to an end, thousands of people around the world were suddenly getting sick with what they believed at the time to be a common cold. In less than two years, an estimated 20-100 million people around the world were dead from type A influenza, wiping out 2.5% to 5% of the world’s population. It was widely believed that this was mother nature’s response to the death and destruction which occurred during the Great War. The end of the war certainly helped to spread the disease, as millions of infected soldiers brought it back to their home countries when the fighting was over. By 1919, 25% of Americans were infected with influenza.
The disease was widely spread in the air from coughing and sneezing, from contact with saliva, feces and blood. Symptoms included fever, muscle aches (especially in the back and legs), headaches, coughing, and overall weakness. As was mentioned earlier, it is for these reasons that many people perished without any treatment. They thought they had a common cold, and in less than a day, they’d be gone. Severe pneumonia was also a symptom of influenza infection, which would easily claim the lives of the already weakened victims.
In the four years between 1347 and 1351, 75 million people died as the result of a bacterium called Yersinia pestis, or the plague. Stories vary as to where the disease started, but some believe that it began in the lungs of the bobac variety of marmot in China. Fleas would then bite the marmots, and would subsequently infect every animal they would bite afterwards, especially rats. These diseased rats and fleas would follow merchants in ships as they sailed along trade routes across Asia and into Europe.
One group sailing towards Europe was a Tartar army from central Asia, who in their attempts to conquer a small city in the Crimea, were all but wiped out from some mysterious disease. As they departed in defeat they hurled the corpses of their infected soldiers into the heart of the city via catapults. A group of Italian merchants who were living in the city at the time quickly left the city and made their way back home in twelve vessels. Not only were most of the sailors dead or dying by the time they reached Sicily, but they had brought enough infected fleas and rate to spread the plague throughout Europe and into Northern Africa. Out of 40 million people living in Europe at the time, 25 million perished.
The plague manifested itself in three forms: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. Sufferers of the bubonic plague would develop swollen lymph nodes or buboes on their necks, armpits, and groin. These skin bubbles would ooze blood, puss, and would turn black as the skin decays. Sufferers would usually die within a week. Pneumonic plague would infect the lungs causing victims to suffocate or drown, and the septicemic plague is a form of blood poisoning which rots the extremities and turns the skin black.
As far as the animal kingdom is concerned, mosquitoes kill more humans than all the others combined. A tiny bite from this tiny f$%&er is all it takes to infect someone with Plasmodium, a nasty little parasite which multiplies in the liver and then goes on to infect the red blood cells. If gone untreated, malaria can kill its victim in less than two weeks, disrupting the blood supply to vital organs. While the malaria pandemic has spread to the Americas and various parts of Asia, 85-90% of the fatalities occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where the parasite kills over one million people per year. Plasmodium has co-existed with humans for over 10,000 years, but President Obama has declared that the United States, along with its world partners, will work to eradicate malaria by 2015.
In the 30 years scientists first discovered the existence of the AIDS virus, more than 25 million people worldwide have died from AIDS infections. According to World Health Organization (WHO), close to 40 million people are currently infected with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) which is the virus that causes AIDS.
Although the number of people infected with AIDS continues to rise around the world, parts of Africa maintain the highest number of HIV infected. Sub-Sahara Africa accounts for over 60% of all HIV positive cases for the entire world.
Human Immunodeficiency virus is passed from person to person when infected blood, semen, or vaginal secretions come in contact with an uninfected person’s broken skin or mucous membranes.
Since this article was first written, there has only been one swine flu related death outside of Mexico. A 23-month-old toddler passed away in Houston, Texas this week, the family of which has received the “thoughts and prayers” from President Obama. The child was a resident of Mexico, and of the 66 cases of the flu in the U.S. and 13 in Canada, all can be traced back to Mexican visits. If you or anyone you know has been to Mexico recently or has come into contact with someone who has, and you’re experiencing respiratory problems, fever, sever coughing, headaches, vomiting and or diarrhea, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. If caught early, the swine flu is treatable, it can be stopped from spreading to others, and will hopefully never reach the levels of casualties of pandemics past.Did you like this post? Leave your comments below!
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