Worst Plagues in History

When most people speak of plagues they are actually referring to epidemics which are defined as “Any excessive and related incidence of a particular disease above what is normally expected in a population.” However the other kind of plague is the pandemic in which “the epidemic extends beyond the confines of a wide area, typically a continent, and becomes a more widespread problem” ( History of Epidemics and Plagues). This article will discuss incidences of both types of plagues.

Malaria: Means “Bad Air” and is arguably the biggest killer of humans in history. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 2.7 million deaths a year caused by malaria. The WHO also adds that nearly 3000 children die every day from this entirely preventable disease. Malaria nearly disappeared with the wide spread use of DDT after World War Two, by killing the disease carrying mosquitoes. However, thanks to Rachael Carson and the rabid environmentalists getting DDT banned, Malaria has made a vicious comeback.

Smallpox: This disease is another deadly and widespread killer. The Antonine Plague (165 – 180 AD) also called the Plague of Galen, is attributed to smallpox and is credited with killing 5 million Romans. The Native American plague between 1492 and 1900 killed over 95 million people in the New World. The hyper virulent smallpox in a population with no natural immunities is blamed as the primary killer, along with influenza and measles. Thanks to supreme efforts worldwide and to modern medical science; the world is free of smallpox with no cases reported since 1980.

Common influenza: Every year the seasonal flu killed about 36,000 Americans. Also the “Spanish flu” that caused the great flu epidemic of 1918 and 1920 killed at least 100 million people worldwide with over 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population at that time, being infected.

Bubonic Plague: Called the Black Death or the Black Plague was one of, if not the single deadliest plagues of all time. Originating in Central Asia in the early 14th Century, the disease spread by fleas riding on rats moved into Europe by 1346. The total number of deaths worldwide is over 75 Million in the first phase of the Black Death among a population of only 400 Million. This plague returned periodically over the next 300 years with varying levels of lethality.

This list does not include Syphilis with about 12 million new cases a year worldwide, or Cholera, which if untreated has a 40% to 60% mortality rate.


“History of Epidemics and Plagues” at http://uhaweb.hartford.edu/bugl/ histepi.htm#types (October, 2001).

Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens. 1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics, January, 2006. at http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol12no01/05-0979.htm



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