Invisible killers: 5 epidemics that changed the course of history

US, WASHINGTON (NEWS OBSERVATORY) — For the first time, people were able to see viruses in the 1930s, when electron microscopes appeared, and before that, humanity had to fight an invisible enemy. However, even today, after 90 years of research, experimentation and theory, infectious agents are constantly challenging entire continents.

Human civilization at any moment can face a threat that comes as if from nowhere, and you need to be prepared for this.

The weapon in this war can be the many years of experience accumulated by doctors and effective vaccines that did not exist at a time when epidemics devastated dozens of cities. “Around the World” tells the story of the five most serious epidemics in history, some of which were caused by viruses and that claimed countless lives.

1. Plague

The plague is perhaps one of the worst diseases ever to land. Massive spontaneous pandemics, horror that swept and paralyzed dozens of countries, bodies mutilated by disease, dumped in mass graves, creepy plague doctors and the absence of any hope – all this turned the plague into a common noun, which means something inevitable, terrifying and incredibly dangerous. Mankind has survived at least six major outbreaks of this disease, of which three are classified as pandemics, which in Greek means “the whole nation.”

Procession in Rome during the 590 plague, engraving from the Middle Ages, 1892, by Francesco Bertolini (1836-1909), with illustrations by Lodovico Pogliaghi (1857-1950).

The first known wave was called the “Justinian Plague”, since it fell under the rule of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It began in Egypt and later spread to the entire civilized world: the epidemic lasted about a century and a half, sporadically manifested in different regions, but its peak fell in the middle VI century BC e. Then in Constantinople about 5,000 people died every day, and sometimes the number of victims reached 10,000 a day – by the end of the most acute period of the outbreak, the population of the capital of the Byzantine Empire had decreased by 40%.

In total, according to the most rough estimates, the Justinian Plague claimed about 125 million lives: 100 million in the East and another 25 million in Europe. In cities, instead of people, chaos and devastation settled, crafts were abandoned, the economy fell into decay. According to eyewitnesses, people were divided into two categories: those who were already dead, and those who carried dead bodies outside the city. There are simply no other activities left.

A second plague pandemic erupted in the middle of the 16th century. She swept through Asia, Europe, North Africa and even reached the coast of Greenland. The Gobi Desert is called its hotbed, and pestilence was brought to Europe from East China by the Mongolian troops during the devastating raids of the future Golden Horde on its neighbors.

The chronology of the second wave is traditionally determined by 1346-1353 years, however, individual outbreaks were recorded until the end of the century. In modern sources, this wave is known as the “black death”, although during the epidemic no one called it that. Hypothetically, this term dates back to the 17th century researcher, who made a mistake in translation and interpreted the word “black”, alta, exclusively as a color, although initially it described the number of deaths.

The concepts of “cloud” or “darkness” can serve as an analogy in the Russian language, which corresponds to the total number of deaths over the past two decades of the plague: the disease mowed 60 million people.

It was during the second epidemic that the plague doctors appeared, which could not be confused with any other representatives of the professions: a characteristic mask with a bird’s beak and glasses for the eyes, a long coat of waxed leather, high boots and certainly a cane, so as not to touch patients.

Then the word “quarantine” appeared: in Venice, all people who arrived in the city, ships and goods were sent to a special island to exclude the possibility of infection. There they were exactly 40 days, as Christ in the wilderness, and 40 in Italian will be quaranta.

For the third time, humanity faced the plague pandemic at the end of the 19th century, although some researchers attribute it to the final, fifth, relatively weak peak of the second pandemic. The epidemic broke out in 1855 in the Chinese province of Yunnan, from where it spread to all inhabited continents: from Australia to Cuba, from the Russian Empire to South America – there were no barriers or borders for the plague.

In India and China alone, more than 12 million people died from it, but the total number of victims is problematic, since there is no clear time frame for the pandemic: it is assumed that it ended in 1911 when the last major outbreak in the history of the disease – the plague in Manchuria (1910) -1911 years).

However, it was the third wave of plague pestilence that helped scientists finally establish the etiology of the disease: Yersinia pestis carried by fleas. After a scientific breakthrough, vaccine development was not far off. The pioneer was the immunologist Vladimir Khavkin, who at the beginning of the 20th century created a vaccine from killed plague sticks.

The most effective, live vaccine was proposed in 1934 by the Soviet bacteriologist Magdalene Petrovna Pokrovskaya. This put an end to millennia of fear and despair, although even today, according to WHO statistics, 2.5 thousand people are infected with plague every year. More recently, in the fall of 2017, a new outbreak was recorded in Madagascar, which claimed 165 lives.

2. Cholera

Cholera, like the plague, has acquired an additional meaning in colloquial speech: most often it acts as a curse, a curse or a characteristic of an unpleasant person. More than one millennium has worked on this reputation of cholera: the first references to this disease are found in Hippocrates, and the roots of the word are ancient Greek (it translates as “bile” and “flow”).

However, despite the fact that the cholera was also known to ancient civilizations, until the 19th century it practically did not go beyond the Indian subcontinent: the infection originated and raged mainly in the Ganges delta, where there were all conditions for the development of the epidemic – heat, humidity, dirt and sewage , crowds and ceremonies on the banks of the river.

Starvation and Cholera in Calcutta (Photo by Henri Bureau/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

British citizens brought in cholera to Europe and from there to the rest of the world during the active colonization of India, as well as merchants who traded with the local population. In 1817, the first cholera pandemic began: there were seven in all, and they went one after another, so it is often difficult to draw a dividing line.

The first wave (1817–1824) struck Asia, without exception, and reached Astrakhan, and Europe was saved from the invasion by an unprecedented frost (the rivers, frozen in ice, became unsuitable for shipping). The second pandemic (1829–1851) reached not only Europe, but also the USA and Japan, and in Russia it caused cholera riots (1830–1831) – a series of unrest and attacks on police stations and officials, whom illiterate people suspected of intentional bullying people.

The third pandemic (1852–1860) became the deadliest epidemic in the 19th century – it claimed the lives of more than 2.5 million people, largely because it coincided with the Crimean War (endless troop movements, famine, devastation, weakened immunity and unsanitary conditions).

In this heyday of the disease, two commemorative events took place at once: the outbreak of cholera on Broad Street (London) in 1854, in which 500 people died in one day, and the investigation of Dr. John Snow, who unmistakably managed to establish the source of infection – polluted water from the column. Its discovery gave impetus to the development of all epidemiology, sanitation and hygiene, as well as the water supply system.

Three more cholera pandemics swept the world from 1863 to 1923, after which the disease went on vacation and returned for the seventh time only in 1961. The last outbreak lasted until 1975, and since then there have been no official pandemics in the world, however, isolated cases are still recorded, especially in poor countries, and as of 2010, the annual mortality from this infection was 100-130 thousand people.

In total, over 60 million people have died from cholera in history. Its danger lies in the fact that at first it is symptomatically similar to poisoning or dysentery: constant thirst, vomiting, muscle weakness, chills, cramps, diarrhea, shortness of breath. If cholera is not recognized in time, it will go into a difficult stage and literally wither a person to death.

3. Smallpox

Contrary to popular belief, it was smallpox, not plague, that was the worst disease for people of the Middle Ages. The plague that devastated entire cities came in waves: after a decade, she retreated, allowing her to catch her breath and regain strength before the next blow. Smallpox, on the other hand, has become a familiar, but no less ugly, background in life.

According to researchers, since the XV century, Europe has been one big smallpox infirmary, and almost no one was able to escape from the disease. There was even a saying: “Few will escape smallpox and love.” For the first time, mankind came across this virus at the beginning of our era: the Middle East region, where the infection was transmitted to people from camels, is considered to be its homeland.

(Original Caption) USA: The small pox troubles in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Residents of foreign birth resisting the transfer of patients to the Isolation Hospital. Drawing by G. A. Davis from a sketch by Fred Doughtery.

The smallpox pandemic, also called black, began as separate waves of disease: in the 4th century, the virus hit China, two centuries later, Korea, and two more, Japan. The virus spread throughout the world during the Arab-Muslim conquests of the 7th – 8th centuries: smallpox spread to vast territories from Spain to India.

At that time, epidemics were recorded in Syria, Palestine and Persia, France, Italy and Sicily. From that moment, smallpox was firmly established in Europe and over the course of several centuries took tens of millions of lives. The exact death toll cannot be determined, since the pandemic has become catastrophic.

The virus did not spare anyone: old people and children, peasants, emperors, kings and princes, courtiers, conquistadors and aborigines were equally infected. For many centuries, smallpox has kept almost the entire globe at bay. About one in six died (and one in three among children), however, even those who managed to survive remained forever disfigured and disfigured by the disease: deep point scars in the place of purulent abscesses covered the entire body and face, and besides, almost all who were ill lost their eyesight.

Each nation invented its own methods of dealing with the disease: India had its own goddess of smallpox, Mariatale, which had to be appeased. A widespread method of treatment was various magical and occult practices: patients were covered with red clothes, which were supposed to lure the infection out, they were fumigated with special herbs, and painful rituals were performed. Of course, all this did not bring any noticeable results, however, according to the law of call-response, any stressful social situation should bring civilization to a qualitatively new level of development. No matter how terrible smallpox was for the people of the Middle Ages, it was it that became the challenge that led to the widespread spread of vaccination.

Even the word “vaccine” was born thanks to smallpox. In 1796, the English doctor and naturalist Edward Jenner, after 30 years of observation and reflection, first instilled in an eight-year-old boy vaccinated with smallpox (from Latin. Vacca – “cow”), not dangerous to humans. The doctor realized that these were two varieties of the same disease, and by planting a person’s “light” smallpox, one can help them develop a strong immunity to the severe form of the virus – smallpox.

The experiment was successful, and soon vaccination became a mass phenomenon, mandatory not only in the army and navy, but also among the urban population. Smallpox was the first disease in the world that mankind was able to completely defeat thanks to a vaccine – the last case was recorded in 1977 in Somalia.

4. Flu

Compared with cholera, plague and smallpox, the flu seems completely harmless, but this is only at first glance. Often it is called a severe cold, although such a disease does not exist in nature. Influenza belongs to acute respiratory viral infections – acute respiratory viral infections and, according to WHO estimates, annually takes 250-500 thousand lives, and the number of cases reaches 3-5 million.

Therefore, influenza is by no means a protracted seasonal malaise: there have been several severe pandemics in history, in which tens of millions died.

File CC0

The largest, most famous and deadliest epidemic erupted in 1918, when the whole world was swept by the Spanish flu, or, as it was called, “Spanish flu”. In 18 months, 550 million people were infected – a third of the entire planet, and according to various estimates, from 50 to 100 million were killed, which makes this pandemic one of the most devastating disasters in the history of civilization.

The horror inspired not only the scale of the pandemic, but also how rapidly the disease progressed: often the infected died on the very next day. Characteristic symptoms were a bluish complexion and a cough with blood.

Later there were Asian, Hong Kong, bird and swine flu, which together killed more than one hundred thousand people. This incredible variation and ability to mutate is the danger of the flu. Unlike smallpox, against which the vaccine has been developed, effective in almost all cases, the flu has an infinite number of strains, and each vaccine needs its own vaccine – there is simply no panacea.

Today, more than 2000 variants of the flu are known, and this is far from the limit: the flu cannot be defeated with one blow, it is impossible to predict which strain will come to a particular region this year. Therefore, it remains only to constantly monitor the bacteriological situation, try to make cautious forecasts and work on a more or less universal vaccine.

5. Ebola Fever

Ebola virus is a relatively young infectious agent: it was first discovered only in 1976, when an outbreak of the disease occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from which 400 people died in a short period of time. The virus was named Ebola in honor of the river of the same name, in the basin of which it was first isolated.

Ebola Fever
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For a long time, the virus did not go beyond the borders of Central and West Africa, therefore, when in 2014 a panic suddenly seized the world and the word “Ebola” appeared in almost every news release, the scientists were not ready for this – the vaccine simply did not exist.

According to the experts of the Viruses project, they had to act under extreme conditions in an extremely short time: developing a vaccine was like a race against time, where every hour counted.

The 2014 epidemic spread like a fire: it swept almost the whole world and claimed about 12 thousand lives.

Mortality was 50%, that is, every second patient died. The atmosphere became more and more intense day by day: people psychologically could not cope with stress and constant fear, they began to look for symptoms of the disease and, paradoxically, they found them.

In fact, Ebola fever in the initial stages can really be confused with another ailment: high fever, chills, cough, headache and abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and general weakness accompany many other diseases. A sign here can be pain and aching muscles, which develop a few days after infection.

The 2014 outbreak helped scientists develop an effective vaccine against the Ebola virus: it was introduced in 2016. However, experts warn that the threat has not been completely eliminated. The last case was recorded recently, on May 9, 2018 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


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Article is written and prepared by our foreign editors from different countries around the world – material edited and published by News Observatory staff in our US newsroom.