History of Pandemics: What Can They Teach Us About Coronavirus?

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  • If you’re under 50, you would not have seen the devastation of mumps or measles. U.S. cases alone numbered in the hundreds of thousands until vaccines became available in the early 1960s. Rubella, sometimes known as German measles, was particularly dangerous to pregnant women and could cause congenital birth defects or neonatal deaths. Now, mumps, measles, and rubella are treatable with a single vaccination.
  • If you’re under 40, Small Pox is a thing of the past, with vaccination campaigns eliminating it in 1979.

Definitions

First, let’s start with some general definitions about the Coronavirus:

Infographic: History of the Deadliest Pandemics

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History

1. Plague of Athens:

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  • Disease: likely Typhoid fever
  • Deaths: 75,000 to 100,000
  • Source: Ethiopia
  • Extent: Beyond the city of Athens to the eastern Mediterranean

2. Antonine Plague:

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  • Disease: likely Small Pox
  • Deaths: 5 million
  • Source: Italian soldiers returning from the Near East
  • Extent: The second outbreak in 251–266, called the Plague of Cyprian, killed 5,000/day in Rome. Possibly as many as 5 million died.

3. Plague of Justinian:

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  • Disease: Yersinia pestis, bacteria responsible for Bubonic Plague
  • Source: Egypt, though possibly originally from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and China
  • Extent: Killed 50% of the population of Europe between 550–700 AD

4. Black Death:

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  • Disease: Yersinia pestis, responsible for the Plague from the time of Justinian to the Third Pandemic (Modern Plague) in 19th century China
  • Source: China and Central Asia
  • Extent: 75–200 million deaths across Eurasia. Outbreaks in Spain, Sweden, Prussia, Italy, and the Islamic world claimed between a third to two-thirds of their populations into the 1800s.
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  • All public entertainment was banned.
  • All trade was stopped between other plague towns and London. The death toll by the end of the summer was 7,000 per week.
  • The dead were placed into mass graves and a plague bell was run for 45 minutes during each burial.
  • Magistrates and aldermen enforced the orders of King Charles II in 1665 to lock those infected into their houses.

5. Third Plague Pandemics:

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  • Disease: Yersinia pestis
  • Source: China
  • Extent: Worldwide, 12 million deaths

6. Spanish Flu:

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  • Disease: a subtype of avian or porcine H1N1 virus
  • Source: China?, France?, Fort Riley, Kansas?
  • Extent: Worldwide, 40–50 million

7. Small Pox:

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  • Disease: Variola virus
  • Source: Cases reported in ancient Egypt, China, India?
  • Extent: Worldwide, 56 million
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8. Modern Pandemics:

Modern science has not eliminated all infectious diseases. There have been some epidemics and pandemics, though these have been much more limited in both scale (size) and scope (geography.) As the population grows — some 6 billion people have been added in the last century — and diets shift to higher levels of protein derived from meat, zoonotic diseases become more common.

  • Swine Flu killed about 200 thousand between 2009 and 2010.
  • Ebola Virus, though highly virulent with a mortality rate of 25–90%, was mostly, though not exclusively, confined to tropical regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, Western Africa, and Southern Africa. It killed about 11 thousand people. Before a vaccine for the disease proved effective in 2019, isolation and quarantine were effective in slowing the spread of the disease.
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Coronavirus’ Uniqueness

Q: What are unique characteristics that make it different from other pandemics, and even from other influenza outbreaks?

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  • No vaccine. Early trials have begun this week, but it will likely take months to years for a successful vaccine to go into production.
  • You’re contagious before you get sick. Infected individuals who have not presented any symptoms can still be contagious.
  • Undocumented and asymptomatic cases are instrumental in spreading the new Coronavirus.
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  • Urbanization: more people live in cities now than at any other time in history. High population concentrations make contagion easier.
  • Aging Population: in America, Japan, and Italy means there is a more significant proportion of the population with more fragile health. Some elderly folks have risk factors that may have been built up over their long lifetime: smoking, obesity, heart disease, etc.
  • Transportation: we know that before modern ground transportation, to move goods across land cost ten times what it costs to transport by water. Shipping since the Age of Discovery in the late 15th century spread disease from port to port, and via river from town to town. The advent of modern commercial air travel — which has doubled in the last decade — has made it easier to move goods, and people, farther and faster than ever before. What used to take days to months now takes hours.
  • 24-hour media news cycle: where 15% of web traffic is going to content about Coronavirus, according to traffic analysis. Current big stories are travel restrictions, social distancing, and #FlattenTheCurve stories. It overshadows 2020 election coverage by 15 times. At the same time, Americans are 30% more engaged with content than last year.
  • Online suppression: the Chinese social network TikTok directed its moderators to suppress posts from “users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform,” according to internal documents seen by The Intercept.
  • Online malware: we are witnessing not only a biological virus but online malware including credential phishing, malicious attachments, malicious links, business email compromise (BEC), fake landing pages, downloaders, spam, and malware, among others, all leveraging coronavirus lures.

Conclusion

While the infection numbers and death counts are low by historical standards, the current growth of the Coronavirus pandemic is exponential. See a real-time map here.

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Silicon Valley Tech Exec: Cloud, Data Storage, Automation. Author of fascinating articles about history, tech trends, andpop culture. Blog: http://billpetro.com

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