People in the ancient times weren’t the best when it came to maintaining a sanitary and clean environment for living. With lack of sanitation came infections and some infections inevitably led to diseases. Thus began the long shared history between human civilization and illness. Surprisingly, our great, great ancestors were actually far less exposed to infections and diseases. But around 10,000 years ago, people started living in major settlements primarily based on agriculture. As pivotal and revolutionary these settlements were in shaping the future of human civilization, they also brought new diseases and epidemics with them. People were now living in close and unsanitary communities – a perfect medium for some of them prevalent animal diseases to jump species and cause an outbreak of epidemics. Here is a list of top 10 epidemic diseases that were common in the ancient world.
An infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, these days chicken pox is usually taken as a mild illness, frequent among children – though any case of chicken pox in teenagers or adults is still a matter of more concern. But before a vaccine was developed to curb chicken pox, it used to be a nightmare infection among a wide range of populations. Though the first cases of chicken pox and its imminent epidemic outbreaks don’t date as far back as one would think, many people in the early 1500s actually thought chicken pox was a type of scarlet fever (since both infections cause red rashes). Around the same time, Giovanni Filippo Ingrassia from Italy first distinguished between the two diseases. Even though a vaccination is available now, only a natural recovery from chickenpox disease provides lifelong immunity.
There was a time when getting caught in the infection of epidemic typhus almost guaranteed death unless the victim had surprisingly strong immunity and got proper nursing care. There are virtually no evidences of any typhus epidemic before 1450 AD, but once it surfaced somewhere around that year, it devastated the inhabitants in throughout Europe between 17th and 19th century. The scariest aspect of typhus is, even if you are cured of it, based on your immunity levels, it can always hit back again.
So whenever wars broke out, a typhus outbreak would rise to wreck through already near dismantled troops and soldiers. The first of written descriptions put the death toll of the Spanish troops at 17,000 caused by typhus epidemics during the siege of Granada in 1489 AD. It then hit the French army trying to besiege Naples in 1527 and forced them into retreat. Even more notable typhus outbreaks were seen during the Napoleonic wars and the Irish Potato Famine of 1846-49 – both of them claiming hundreds of thousands of lives.
Influenza may sound like a recent epidemic disease, but it has been infecting people for thousands of years. Even though the influenza virus was isolated as recently as in 1933 AD, the first cases of influenza among humans are said to be 6000 years old. Regardless of such long history, the first documented records of an influenza outbreak in a human community are from 1580 AD when an infection strikingly similar to it was reported in Asia Minor and Northern Africa.
Having ravaged through countless settlements and populations in the history of human civilization, the world was dealt with another severe blow in the in the form of the influenza epidemic that engulfed everyone in 1918 and killed an estimated 50 million people. In fact the death toll caused by the epidemic was so high that a significant more people died off the epidemic than in world war 1. In that single year when the epidemic hit the United States, the life expectancy of an average American dropped by 12 years.
An infectious disease caused by bacteria named Salmonella typhi, typhoid is a highly communicable disease that easily spreads through contaminated food and water supplies and close contact with infected people. So naturally typhoid was a frequent epidemic in ancient times when environment sanitation used to be at one of its lowest. Probably the most devastating occurrence of a typhoid epidemic happened around 430-424 BC, when it wiped out one third of the population of Athens in ancient Greece.
The grip of typhoid fever among the Athenians was so strong that the Spartans took over the rule. This effectively brought an end to the Golden Age of Pericles that once symbolized the Athenian dominance over ancient world (along with death of Pericles himself who could not survive the epidemic). Had the famous Athenian historian Thucydides not survived after contracting the typhoid fever back then, we might as well not have any documented record of this ravaging outbreak. Typhoid fever epidemics kept on wrecking through human settlements time and again. The mortality rates could only be curbed with the first medical use of penicillin antibiotics in 1942.
Malaria is one of the oldest disease that have been infecting various species from around 300,00 years ago. The disease is even said to be the cause behind the death of the great Genghis Khan. The first documented descriptions of malaria date back to 2700 BC, when the symptoms of an infection that later went on to be called malaria were pointed out a medical note named Nei Ching.
By the time 4th century BC arrived, it was already a widely known epidemic in ancient Greece, having claimed a huge chunk of population in local and nearby settlements. By the time the reign of Pericles had begun, the ancient Greek literature and records had already extensively covered several malarial outbreaks and other related references. The effect of malarial infections was seen in subsequent civilizations too. The Romans came up with a rather bizarre cure for malaria, which required the infected person to wear an amulet around the neck. The amulet used to be inscribed with an incantation we now know as “abracabadra”. Even though modern medical advances have helped curb the malarial epidemics to a large extent, it still infects about 300 million people every year, of which around 1 million don’t survive.
The first description of Measles in the history dates back to 9th century AD when an Arab physician first identified it as an infection different from smallpox. Even though the exact origin of measles is unknown, measles epidemics kept on infecting settlements of ancient world time and again. After many such epidemics, it was only in 1757 that a Scottish physician named Francis Home was able to show that the infection was caused by an agent in the blood of diseased people. In one of the more recent outbreaks in Boston in 1964, John F. Enders and Dr. Thomas C. Peebles became the first to isolate the measles virus from the patient’s blood and create a measles vaccine.
Before the vaccination became available for medicinal use, in the United States alone, more than three million people were getting infected each year. Though post vaccination period saw a whopping 99% decrease in the number of annual cases of measles.
Tuberculosis is one of the most lethal communicable disease caused by a bacteria named Mycobacterium tuberculosis – an organism whose existence pre-dates even the first of human settlements. One would say modern day sanitation and medical advances are more than enough to curb disease like tuberculosis, but even at present, more than 2 million deaths every year mainly in developing countries are caused by tuberculosis.
The middle ages are full of evidence of cervical lymph nodes and neck lymph node related tuberculosis. Sources even say that tuberculosis was also known as ‘King’s evil’ and there was a popular legend upon people in Europe that a mere touch of the Kings of England and France could cure tuberculosis in those infected by it. Tuberculosis remained a killer disease past middle ages, claiming an estimated quarter of the adult population of Europe in the 19th century. In fact one in six deaths in France was attributed to tuberculosis alone by 1918.
3. Yellow Fever
This disease is similar to Malaria in the sense that it is also transferred through mosquitoes. The infected person gets a characteristic yellow tinge in the eyes and skin (hence the name), and a rather painful ‘black vomit’ caused by excessive bleeding in the stomach. The yellow fever virus is said to have originated in Africa in the early 1500s and was brought to the new world along with slave trade. After the first outbreak in 1690s in the United States, Philadelphia was hit by a major yellow fever epidemic in 1793, killing a huge chunk of population and compelling even more to flee away.
The epidemic hit areas far and wide – the British expedition to annex Peru and Mexico in 1741 was reduced from a strong 27,000 troops to mere 7000 by the inexplicable painful ‘black vomit’. Yellow fever was a dreaded infection that repeatedly hit the vulnerable coastal towns of North and South America throughout the 17th and 18th century.
2. Small Pox
A highly contagious disease caused by variola virus, small pox is known to have killed at least 30% of all the people it had infected ever since it first surfaced. Its origin was associated with both Egypt and India as early as at least 3000 years ago. The earliest known evidence on the presence of smallpox came from the mummified remains of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V who died in 1157 BC and whose remains bear the signature pockmarks of smallpox on his skin. Smallpox epidemic was a frequent occurrence during the middle ages, claiming a huge number of lives and sending much of the possible western development into back stage. So much so that it played a major role in the decline of Roman Empire, which started to decline around 108 AD – a time that saw a large scale smallpox epidemic in the form of the plague of Antonine.
This monstrous scale epidemic killed almost 7 million people and effectively pushed forward the downfall of the once great Roman Empire. As the new world age came along, small pox outbreaks also scaled up claiming an estimated 60 million lives in the 18th century and 300 million lives globally in the 20th century alone.
1. Bubonic Plague
A deadly bacterial infection caused by a bacteria named Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague is also referred to as the ‘Black Plague’. For centuries, plague has been synonyms with inexplicable disaster for people in Asia, Europe and Africa – claiming lives that accounted for a significant chunk of the population in the biggest of empires like the Romans. The first detailed record of the plague is from the time of 6th century Byzantine empire under the rule of Justinian I.
After the first outbreak on 541 AD, it surfaced for a number of times in the next two centuries killing over 25 million people and effectively crippling the Mediterranean basin based settlements of that time. Then came the Black Death in the spring of 1348 – a plague so lethal that in the next three years, it had wiped out about 25% to 50% of the entire Europe’s population. No one was prepared for that degree of impending annihilation, neither anyone had an adequate understanding of the disease. The situation only worsened and things became so ghastly that historians report on occasions, those who survived were not even enough to bury the dead.
These epidemics rank among the most destructive diseases that claimed countless lives throughout the history of human civilization. They wrecked havoc through many civilizations and settlements, brought about the decline of the ancient Roman Empire and, in many ways, changed the course of human history. Keeping the modern day medical awareness and knowledge in mind, we might consider ourselves safe from an outbreak on a global scale. But not so long ago, people used to die in millions due to sudden outbreaks of these epidemic diseases. Many of these epidemics went on to affect a significantly larger area of land, and claimed a substantial number of lives – eventually categorizing themselves as global scale pandemics.