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Ravaging diseases that wiped out 500 million people

By Amos Kareithi | March 22nd 2020 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

A deserted Ronald Ngala Street in Nairobi yesterday as most city residents stayed away due to the ravaging Covid-19 disease. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

No wedding, no burials and no birthday parties! TV sports channels are blank, schools and universities closed, churches and mosques empty.

What a world! Who would have thought of such a bleak Easter where holidays which had been meticulously planned for months are abruptly cancelled? A world in which families that had been planning these getaways for months will be lucky to get permission to go to their local drugstore for cough syrup is now a reality?

That there will be no hunt for Easter eggs and April Fools’ day pranks is becoming increasingly possible by the day as more countries close their borders and airspaces and report a spike in number of deaths, the dying and the freshly infected. 

Here in Kenya, counties have announced closure of bars and markets.

And as the chaos brought about by the ravaging coronavirus across continents unwraps, and desperate parents try to barricade their children in their homes, we look at some of the world’s deadliest pandemics in human history.

Covid 19 Time Series


Black Death

As you read this, more than 10,000 people have died from the Covid-19 and 200,000 infected. On average, one person is dying from the coronavirus every two minutes in Europe.

This may sound grim but a look at past pandemics which have afflicted the world for hundreds of years paint a bleaker picture. The number of people who have in the past been killed by the world’s 10 worst pandemics is quite jaw-dropping.

It is also evident that these pandemics have collectively wiped out over half a billion people (500 million). Ironically, more than half of these victims have been wiped out by a single disease, small pox, which has mercifully been eradicated.  

In a report published in 2017, BBC estimated that 300 million people were wiped out by small pox alone in the 20th century. The first evidence of the disease was traced to the mummified remains of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses V, who is believed to have died in 1157 BC.

The grimmest reaper of all these pandemic is the Black Death variously referred to as bubonic plague. There are conflicting number of victims it killed. For instance, https://www.visualcapitalist.com/history-of-pandemics-deadliest/ writes that about 200 million people or half the world’s population was killed between 1347-1351.

Another authority, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, puts the death toll at between 75 million to 200 million. There is consensus however that as much as half of Europe may have died in a span of four years, these deaths were attributed to bubonic plague, which was spread by fleas which picked up the germs when they bit rodent like rats, mice or squirrels. They then passed the germs to humans with catastrophic consequences. 

After the bite, the infected person then developed buboes (swollen and painful lymph nodes under the arms, in the neck or in the groin) which if untreated, spread to the whole body.

Later, London would bear the blunt of yet another plague in 1665 when about 15 per cent or 100,000 of its population was killed by the disease carried by rats attracted by city streets filled with garbage. 

Earlier in 165 AD, Italy had suffered from Antoine Plague where patients complained of fever, sore throat, diarrhea and coughing. Historians say another five million people were killed by another rat invasion which was particularly hard on the Roman Army.

According to Devastating Disasters, (https://devastatingdisasters.com/the-plague-of-justinian-541-542-ad/)  another plague, Justinian is estimated to have killed as many as 100 million people as it swept across the world. 

Greek historian Procopius recorded the devastation occasioned by the plague on Constantinople (later renamed Istanbul), as it  was killing 10,000 people at what  was then the most important hub of Christian civilization.

And the Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal  published in April 2002 describes the ebola like cocoliztli epidemic as the worst outbreak to afflict North America in the last 500 years. The pandemic which  took place between 1545 and 1576 wiped out  17 million people.  Those infected complained of vertigo, fever, head and abdominal pains, bleeding from the nose and  eyes.

However, the most ravaging pandemic of modern times was the Great Flu, variously referred to as the Spanish Flu of 1918 which left 50 million deaths around the world. Its symptoms were fever, dry cough, fatigue, difficulty in breathing and cold.

Here in Kenya, the Spanish flu killed approximately 4,593 in five districts especially along the coast between September and December of that year. It had first been detected in Malindi and at its height about 50 people were succumbing to the scourge in Taita Taveta alone each day.

Despite advances in medical research, the world is still grappling with the effects of human immunodeficiency virus and the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV-Aids) pandemic, which scientists blame for 32 million deaths globally.

The viral scourge which became prevalent in 1980s but had been detected earlier compromises the human body’s immune system, weakening its ability to fight off diseases and exposes it to opportunistic infections. It has further affected 75 million people, majority of them in Africa who are living with it.

The swine flu which began in 2009 with an influenza virus known as H1N1 in China and spread quickly around the world too has left devastating consequences. According to US based Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 575,000 people have died from the illness while 61 million cases were reported between April 2009 and April 2010.


This is however not as deadly as Videoan flu (H2N2) which began in East Asia in 1957, and was first discovered in Singapore then Hong Kong and has according to CDC killed 1.1 million people. Yet another pandemic, Hong Kong Flu, first detected in 1968 has caused the deaths of 1.1 million people, majority of them aged 65 and above.

Cholera, too has devastated the world and left in its wake death as happened in 1817 in Ganges Delta in Calcutta, India, where the World Health Organisation estimates there are between three to five million cases reported annually where 120,000 people die. Unlike flu, cholera, if untreated kills in just a few hours.

Pandemics Coronavirus Swine Flu
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