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The Top 5 Worst Plagues in Human History

The Top 5 Worst Plagues in Human History

By Lisa Bernier

Whenever we turn on The History Channel, or NatGeo, they're always having specials about the next big pandemic. While we find these shows both gross yet fascinating, we thought we'd take a look back at history to check out what diseases have already struck a blow at mankind. Here for your reading pleasure are the Top 5 Worst Plagues in Human History.

1. The Black Death, 1348-1350

Although it's funny in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Black Death was no joke. One of the worst plagues to ever hit the planet, it is estimated it killed anywhere between 75 to 200 million people, reducing the entire world population by 100 million. Its origins are thought to be in China, and it spread along the famous trade route the Silk Road into Europe. Thought to be spread by flea bites, the cause is thought to be the pathogen Yersinia pestis.

Symptoms included buboes appearing in the neck, armpits and groin that bled and oozed out pus when they broke open, high fever, and vomiting blood. Most victims died within 2 days of showing signs of the disease.

Scariest fact: many scientists believe that the Black Death could easily return, and is lying dormant, waiting to strike the world today.

2. The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

For all those who watch Downton Abbey, you may have already heard of this deadly epidemic. Almost killing Cora, and outright killing Lavinia, the great 1918 influenza pandemic, or the Spanish flu, lasted from 1918-1919, and in that time killed between 20 to 40 million people. The disease was global (a product of the World War I), ranging from Europe to America to the Pacific—it even infected people in the Arctic!

The origins of the disease are unknown, with historians pointing to different places such as Asia, Spain, and Kansas.The symptoms were all those of the normal flu, but instead of just targeting the very young, elderly, or already sick, it struck down healthy adults.

The fatality of the disease was due to a virus that causes the immune system to overreact, though death could also be caused by a common secondary bacterial infection that often followed the disease.  Unlike the normal flu, which only kills about 0.1% of those infected, the 1918 influenza killed 20% of those who caught it.

3. The Plague of Justinian, 541-542 A.D.

Affecting Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire, the plague of Justinian was thought to be a form of the bubonic plague, but unrelated to the Black Death. Thought to originate in China, it came to Constantinople through rats on grain boats from Egypt. Its reach was far, affecting those from Central Asia, to North Africa, to Europe, evening spreading as far out as Ireland.

At its height, it is thought that 5,000 people per day died of the plague in Constantinople. Though the worst outbreak happened in 541 (and even infected the emperor of the time, Justinian), the disease would return in waves up until 750 A.D.

The disease devastated both the city of Constantinople, killing around 40% of its population, and went on to kill about a quarter of the population in the eastern Mediterranean.

4. The Epidemics of the American Continents, 16th Century

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the native populations of both the North and South American continents had never been exposed to many deadly diseases. With the arrival of European explorers came exposure, infection, and massive fatalities. Often the disease spread ahead to parts of the continents Europeans hadn't traveled yet.

It is estimated that smallpox, measles, and other diseases often killed 80 to 90% of the Native American civilizations they hit. These epidemics contributed to the downfall of great empires like the Incas and the Aztecs, and entire settlements of people were wiped out by the diseases.

5. The Common Cold

You may laugh, but the disease known as the common cold a) spreads like wildfire b) has effected the entire population of the world since time immemorial (it was first seen written in medical records in Ancient Egypt)  and c) has no known cure. Caused by different viruses, scientists have yet to isolate a cause, a specific infecting virus (though rhinoviruses are generally thought to be the ones most common), and can only treat the symptoms, not the disease.

Still not impressed? Most adults through their lifetime will contract 2 to 3 colds A YEAR. When you're a child, it's worse: you contract from 6 to 12.

No record of fatalities exist, but if your immune system is already badly weakened and you catch a cold, then yes. It can kill you.

Go wash your hands!

Tags: history, monty python, diseases, life, roman empire, ancient rome

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