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


The Ten Deadliest Diseases

Number 10: Syphilis is as deadly as it is widespread. Worldwide over 12 million people per year are diagnosed with this killer and this number does not count the undiagnosed sufferers. A sexual transmitted disease, or STD, Syphilis can also be transmitted from infected mother to newborn baby.  Over 157,000 deaths are attributed worldwide to syphilis.

Number 9:  Meningitis is a bacterial infection of central nervous system.  Even with quick and modern treatment, Meningitis still has a 10 percent fatality rate.  Further survivors often suffer from brain damage, hearing loss or some other kinds of nerve damage.  One million people get one of the several forms of Meningitis every year and nearly 175,000 die.

Number 8: Tetanus, previously referred to as lock-jaw, because one of the symptoms of the disease is prolonged spasm of skeletal muscles, first affecting the face and jaw muscles. The tetanus bacteria lives in the soil and even the smallest cut can let the infection in.  Worldwide the infection rate is 500,000 cases, with a death rate of over 40 percent or nearly 215,000 deaths per year.

Number 7: Whooping cough while previously well controlled in the West by vaccines is now making a comeback due to anti-vaccine movements, primarily in California and Australia. Whooping cough, or pertussis, is highly contagious and opens the infected person up to a whole range of other respiratory infections.  It is particularly deadly in children. The worldwide infection rate is between 20 to 40 million people a year with over 200,000 deaths per year.

Number 6:  Measles is primarily a disease of children with more than thirty million infected every year.  Measles is easily curable and preventable given modern treatments, sadly, developing countries rarely have the modern medicines to treat or prevent this killer. Even children that survive will have lasting effects such as brain damage or blindness. There are approximately 530,000 deaths each year from measles worldwide.

Number 5:  Tuberculosis, or TB, one-third of the earth’s population, or over two billion people, are infected with TB.  A highly contagious airborne disease, the symptoms include fever, cough and weight loss.  Nearly 2 million people die every year of TB.

Number 4: Diarrhea has many causes and is particularly lethal to children as it can led to severe dehydration. In the developed world diarrhea is rarely deadly, but in developing countries it is a killer.  Nearly 2.2 million people die every year from this easily treatable cause.

Number 3: Malaria, meaning “bad air”, is carried by the female anopheles mosquito and transmitted to humans when the mosquito bites.   In fact, malaria is not person to person transmittable at all.  Malaria was once on its way to being well controlled by the use of DDT to kill or repel the mosquito. But with the banning of DDT, malaria made a huge comeback, especially in Africa.  Between 300 and 500 million people are diagnosed every year with malaria. Some 2.5 to nearly 3 million people die every year from the disease.

Number 2: Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the second most deadly disease.  HIV attacks the immune system exposing the victim to a wide range of other infections.  The patient doesn’t actually die of AIDS but rather of opportunistic secondary infections such as TB or pneumonia.  Nearly 3 million people a year worldwide die of AIDS.

Number1: Lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia or other illnesses of the lungs. More than 4 million deaths a year worldwide are attributed to these simple respiratory diseases.