Most Disastrous Public Outbreaks of All Time

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When news breaks about the next potentially dangerous, highly contagious disease outbreak, be it SARS, the Swine Flu, or the Avian Flu, some people dismiss the danger as impossible while others head for the bunkers. Though advances in modern medicine mean that these outbreaks generally wind up sputtering, at least in comparison to the hysteria they can generate, there are historical precedents of truly catastrophic public outbreaks that remind us not to get too comfortable. Here are some examples of the worst disease outbreaks in human history as told by online masters in public health curriculum, including some from recent history, and even from today:

  • Bubonic Plague – Europe and Africa – 1300s through 1400s: Known as the “Black Death,” this epidemic ravaged Europe and Africa, killing over a third of Europe’s population, as well as many millions in Africa and Asia. The total amount of people killed by the Black Death is estimated to be over 100 million, and the outbreak wreaked havoc for over 200 years. The Black Death is believed to have been spread by rats, which often traveled on merchant ships and brought the disease to new areas. Symptoms included the development of weeping pustules on the skin, along with gangrenous deterioration of skin and tissue, fever, and the vomiting of blood. The Black Death was almost always fatal once contracted.
  • The Great Influenza – Worldwide – 1918 through 1919: Killing up to 100 million people in only six months, the Great Influenza may have been the deadliest outbreak in human history. Believed to have been spurred on by the awful conditions and close quarters that soldiers faced during World War One, this flu outbreak was different in that it killed people of all ages, rather than more typical outbreaks that were more dangerous to children and the elderly. Hospitals all over the world were overwhelmed by the epidemic, and many people simply couldn’t get the treatment that they needed to survive.
  • HIV/AIDS – Worldwide – 1980s to Today: Transmitted through unprotected sex, illicit drug use, unsanitary surgical conditions or blood transfusions, HIV/AIDS is one of the most wide-spread killers of modern times. Making the virus even more dangerous, many people don’t manifest symptoms until long after they have contracted it, making it more difficult to treat. HIV/AIDS can be managed with modern medicine, but treatment is expensive and is simply not available in many of the areas of greatest need. HIV/AIDS education is a vital initiative in minimizing the damage of the virus. Preventative measures drastically reduce the potential to contract the virus, as it is not so easily transmitted as many other public outbreaks.
  • Smallpox – Worldwide – 1400s through 1971 – Smallpox was a highly contagious, deadly disease that ravaged many communities over the centuries. Characterized by the emergence of pustules on the skin along with high fever, smallpox often left people who survived blind, and at the very least with serious scarring. The Native American population of North America was particularly hard-hit by smallpox when it was brought over by European immigrants, but the impact of smallpox outbreaks was felt all over the world at different times. Smallpox was used as one of the first biological weapons, and was also one of the first illnesses to be treated with inoculation. Though inoculation did expose patients to the potential of death from the illness, it was an effective preventative measure. The last documented naturally caused case of smallpox was reported in 1971. Today, some countries still maintain small stores of the smallpox virus, officially for research purposes.

No matter what historical era you analyze, chances are you will find evidence of a severe public outbreak. The epidemic and pandemic outbreaks listed above are some of the most severe, but many outbreaks decimated local populations in places all over the world. Modern medicine allows most diseases to be contained prior to severe outbreaks, but the risk of a worldwide pandemic is still very real, as evidenced by HIV/AIDS. Though both the Avian and Swine Flu have not caused the wide-spread peril that was predicted of them, many experts still consider a deadly flu outbreak to be the most likely possible pandemic in the near future, so it’s still smart to take precautions.


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