We live in a modern world where most of us are insulated from dying out en masse. This has not always been the norm. While we panic over 1,000 deaths from the new coronavirus in China, it’s both reassuring and terrifying to think about what people did before modern medicine, antibiotics and vaccines. The pandemics of the past didn’t just kill by the hundreds or thousands, they killed by the millions.
Smallpox plagued humanity for 12,000 years before it was finally eradicated in 1978. Thanks to the discovery of vaccines, we were able to create immunity against this deadly, scarring disease. From 10,000 B.C.E. to 1978, smallpox killed somewhere between 300-500 million people. This number is more than all the wars of history combined. Note that for most of human history, the global population didn’t exceed 200 million people – probably due to pandemics like smallpox. You can imagine what it must have been like for people back then, living in a village of a few hundred people. Smallpox would come through and half the people you knew would die in a matter of weeks.
The bubonic plague popped up a few times in history, each time wiping out millions. Fleas harbored the bacteria. Since fleas live on rats, the prevalence of rodents in human communities meant that the plague could easily wipe out entire communities in a short period of time. Given that germ theory didn’t arise until much later, the lack of hygiene allowed this disease to spread like wildfire. From 1346-1353, in a span of 7 years, the bubonic plague killed somewhere between 75-200 million people.
This year alone, the flu has killed over 10,000 people in the United States alone. But that’s nothing compared to the Spanish flu of 1918. In that one year, this particularly virulent strain of flu killed 20-50 million people, about 2% of the world population. A mutation allowed the virus to replicate faster and created an immune response from the host that caused cytokine storms. People who died from the Spanish flu often drowned in their own fluids.
In just 7 years, HIV killed 36 million people. It’s incredible because this is a time period where we have the ability to fight off most infections and cure many diseases. Luckily, antiretroviral drugs and prophylactics have made HIV less deadly. Those who are HIV+ are now able to lead relatively normal lives (aside from the social stigma).
While our new lifestyle of jet setting and traveling the world can cause diseases to spread easily, most outbreaks today are no match for modern medicine. The medical community and international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) is ready to quarantine and reduce transmission and spread of new diseases. Coronavirus is the latest challenge to medical science.