Swine Flu, the other White plague: The Great Pandemics of History

spanish_fluAmazing.  After a torturous week of funerals and memorial services, I end up smack in the middle of a pandemic in the making.  Good thing I have bereavement leave right now.

H1N1, otherwise known as swine flu, is spreading worldwide at a breakneck pace.  As of this post, there are 527 confirmed cases of the virus, although the projected actual number could reach over 4500.  168 people are suspecting of succumbing to the swine flu globally, and it has sent us into a hysteria not seen in almost a century.  Schools are closing.  Mexico is practically cut off from the rest of the world.  Surgical masks are the hot-ticket item, as well as illicit stockpiles of drugs such as Tamiflu.

If you are not one of the 300 schools closed due to the flu, please take precautions.  Make sure you wash your hands and sanitize thoroughly.  Avoid contact with children whenever possible.  Most importantly, send a child with symptoms to your health office immediately, using guidelines provided by your school district.

However, lets not check for the sign of the beast yet.  Before we start confessing our sins prior to the end of days, let’s check out some of the historic pandemics of the past milennia.  These outbreaks have been so widespread and so deadly that many have changed the course of history:

(1) Plague of Justinian (541-542 AD) – This outbreak of bubonic plague killed 5,000 people a day at its peak in Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.  Estimates are that up to 100 million people died worldwide.  It effectively ended any hope of reforming the Roman Empire, as Justinian’s plague-stricken armies were held in Italy by Goths and Lombards.  By the 600s, Byzantium retreated back to Asia Minor and had the Muslim armies to contend with.

(2) The Black Death (1347-1351) – A combination of bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic plagues swept through Europe.  It is believed that anywhere from 75-200 million people perished during the plague years of the 14th Century.  It killed between 1/3 to 2/3 of the population of Europe, causing lasting societal change.  Because of the decreased population, peasants and workers were at a priority.  The plague weakened the feudal authority of nobles and the Catholic Church.  Widespread riots led to persecution of Jews, Roma and other minorities.  Ultimately, it helped usher in the Renaissance and the beginnings of modern Western civilization.

(3) Spanish Influenza (1918-1920) – An outbreak of a strange flu strain among US servicemen in France came home after World War I ended in 1918.  This flu, which managed to kill healthy people between age 25 and 50, ended up killing 50-100 million people within two years.  This is the outbreak that brought influenza into national consciousness.  Ever wonder why the big push for flu shots?  This is why.

(4) Smallpox (430 BC – 1979) – Smallpox, which was officially eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1979, had been a scourge for centuries.  Scientists believe it broke out as early as 10,000 BC.  It is responsible for the near-annihilation of many Native American peoples of the Americas, as well as periodic outbreaks in Europe during the 18-19th Centuries.  Thanks to concerted efforts to inoculate people during the 19th and 20th century, it is the only pandemic that has been eradicated completely.

(5) Cholera (1817-present) – Cholera showed the world the need for adequate plumbing and clean drinking water.  The disease spread from contaminated water supplies, and several pandemics–the First: 1817-1823, Second: 1829-1851, Third: 1852-1859, Fourth: 1863-1879, Fifth: 1881-1896, Sixth: 1899-1923  and Seventh: 1961- 1970–decimated populations from India to London to New York.  A local footnote: the Cholera Epidemic of 1834-1835 spread across New York, and resulted in the first reservoir and plumbing systems in the city.

(6) Malaria (1600?-present) – Malaria, a disease spread by mosquitos in tropical and subtropical regions, kills 2 million people a year and gets little media attention.  400-900 million people contract it each year, and it causes at least one death every 30 seconds.  Along with hampering economic development in developing countries, malaria probably gave rise to an alcoholic beverage.  Take British gin, add tonic water that includes quinine, a known drug that interacts with malaria, and you have the gin and tonic.

(7) AIDS (1981-today) If you were a child of the 1980s and 1990s, you were familiar with AIDS.  Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, was first documented in isolated pockets in New York, San Francisco and other urban areas, particularly among homosexuals and intravenous drug users.  It has since spread to the general population at a frightening clip.  Up to 25 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses thus far, and has caused widespread devastation to populations in Africa, Asia and South America.

If swine flu wants to aspire to pandemic status, it has to contend with those bad boys.  My guess is that it will not come even close.

1 Comment

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One response to “Swine Flu, the other White plague: The Great Pandemics of History

  1. Three important points to take a look at: high fever (greater than 101 Degree F) is typical of influenza of any strain and should be regarded as a red flag; 2) time for the 2 drugs we have that can lessen the duration and severity of flu symptoms to be helpful, they must be started as soon as possible after symptoms begin, so dont delay in calling your hospital if you have reason to believe you might have the flu, swine or otherwise; finally, most of the time respiratory problems are not as a result of influenze, as pointed out, but it can be tricky to differentiate. Call your doctor if youre not sure.

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