Throughout history there have been times when diseases have spread rapidly through the human population. Sometimes these diseases have killed millions of people. This high occurrence of disease is called an epidemic. When an epidemic spreads throughout much of the world it is called a pandemic.
These are some of the most famous epidemics and pandemics in history. Each epidemic or pandemic altered the way of life at the time and had a major impact on the course of history.
Plague of Athens (430 BC)
The Plague of Athens started in 430 BC during the Peloponnesian War between the two great Greek cities of Athens and Sparta. The plague lasted for three years and killed around 25% of the city's inhabitants including Pericles, the great leader of Athens. Eventually the plague took its toll on Athens, causing them to lose the war to Sparta.
Scholars are unsure exactly what the disease was that caused the Plague of Athens, but it was likely Typhoid fever.
Plague of Justinian (541 to 542 AD)
The plague of Justinian was the first major outbreak of the bubonic plague. It occurred mostly in Eastern Europe which was ruled by the Byzantine Empire and the Emperor Justinian. It is estimated that around 5,000 people died per day in the capital city of Constantinople. Even Emperor Justinian became sick from the disease. However, he was one of the few who survived.
The plague continued to return to Eastern Europe for the next two hundred years killing tens of millions of people. It had a lasting impact on Europe and Asia by preventing the Byzantium Empire from expanding.
Black Death (1347 to 1350)
The Black Death was perhaps the worst pandemic in history. It killed between 75 million and 200 million people in Europe. At least one third of all the people in Europe died from the disease.
We now know that the Black Death was the bubonic plague. It was carried by fleas that lived on rats. However, the people of the time didn't know this. Eventually, so many people died that the pandemic came to an end. However, it returned several more times to Europe up until the 18th century.
Spanish Flu (1918 to 1920)
The Spanish flu was a particularly deadly form of the influenza virus that spread throughout the world starting in 1918. It killed between 50 and 100 million people and made over 500 million people sick.
This version of influenza got the name "Spanish flu" because people thought that Spain was hit harder than most countries by the disease. This was because Spain was not involved in WWI. The Spanish newspapers were allowed to report on the disease, while newspapers in other countries such as France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States were under war time censorship and were not allowed report on how bad things were. Eventually, it became known as the Spanish flu.
Worst Pandemic Diseases
These are some of the worst pandemic diseases in the course of history. Many of these diseases caused multiple epidemics and pandemics.
Bubonic plague - The bubonic plague is a disease that infects the lymph glands. When the lymph glands become large and swollen they are called "buboes." Untreated, around 50% of the people who get the disease die. Today the disease is not nearly so dangerous as it can be treated with antibiotics.
Smallpox - Smallpox was a terrible pandemic that ravaged much of the world throughout history. The Europeans brought smallpox to the Americas in the 1400s, causing the death of as much as 90% of the native population. Smallpox causes a severe rash with blisters that often leaves scarring in the survivors. Today smallpox has been eradicated.
Cholera - Cholera is an infection of the small intestine caused by bacteria. It makes people very sick to their stomach. There have been seven cholera pandemics during the 1800s and 1900s. The disease still kills over 100,000 people each year.
Other major pandemic diseases include influenza, typhus, measles, tuberculosis, yellow fever, malaria, and HIV.