Last Century’s Epidemics More Deadly than 21st Century’s

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Young Patient with the flu in a hospital

Here are the major epidemics of the last two centuries, starting with the most recent:

  • 2013-2016 and 2018-to date: Ebola –

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Medical workers took James Dorbor, 8, into an Ebola treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2014, after he had spent hours waiting outside. He later died.
Credit…Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

The deadliest epidemic of the haemorrhagic fever Ebola broke out in West Africa in December 2013 and lasted more than two years, killing more than 11,300 people, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

First identified in 1976, Ebola is less contagious than other viral diseases, but is particularly lethal, killing around 50 percent of cases.

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The virus re-emerged in August 2018 in the eastern Democratic Republic of Con The virus re-emerged in August 2018 in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where it has so far killed more than 2,200. On April 10, 2020 a new case was reported, just three days before a deadline that would have marked the official end to the epidemic.

The deadliest epidemic of the haemorrhagic fever Ebola broke out in West Africa in December 2013 and lasted more than two years, killing more than 11,300, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

First identified in 1976, Ebola is less contagious than other viral diseases, but is particularly lethal, killing around 40 percent.

The virus re-emerged in August 2018 in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where it has so far killed more than 2,200.

  • 2015: MERS-

A temperature check as part of preventive measures against the spread of MERS at the Hong Kong international airport in 2015.
Credit…Philippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By now, no region has proved itself immune to penetration from disease, to its terrible persistence, or to the potential to become the source of pandemics, despite the temptation to assign blame, as with the Covid-19 contagion.
For instance, MERS claimed some 858 lives from 2,494 reported infections, mainly in 2012, and mainly in the Arabian Peninsula, according to the World Health Organization.

The outbreak then reoccurred in South Korea three years later. This time a coronavirus has gone global, nearly everywhere at once.

“We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said of Covid-19 on March 11. “This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.”

“And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled, at the same time,” he added.

21st century’s big pandemics 

  • 2009-2010: Swine flu –

A family outside Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral in 2009, after discovering a baptism had been canceled because of swine flu.
Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

The World Health Organization (WHO) says 18,500 died of so-called “Swine flu”, or H1N1, which was first uncovered in Mexico and the United States in March 2009.

The Lancet medical review, however, puts the toll at between 151,700 and 575,400.

The pandemic alert was launched on June 11, 2009 and lifted on August 10, 2010 but the virus turned out to be not as deadly as first feared.

Vaccines were rushed out, but in hindsight, the West, particularly Europe, and the WHO were criticized for overreacting at a time annual influenza epidemics every year kill between 250,000 and 500,000, according to the Geneva-based UN health agency.

  • 2002-2003: SARS –

Children learning ballet in Hong Kong in 2003 wore masks to protect themselves from SARS.
Credit…Vincent Yu/Associated Press

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome first emerged in Guangdong in southern China in November 2002 before sparking a health crisis in mid-2003, in particular traumatizing Asia.

It killed 774, four fifths of whom were in China and Hong Kong. It was transmitted to man from horseshoe bats, eventually spreading to around 30 countries. It had a mortality rate of 9.5 percent.

  • 2003-2004: Bird flu –

The deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu killed more than 400 people, mainly in Southeast Asia, after appearing in 2003. It first ravaged poultry farms in Hong Kong, before being transmitted to humans. The WHO declared a global health emergency, but the toll remained limited.

20th century’s big pandemics 

  • 1981-to date: AIDS –

The final moments of David Kirby in 1990.

By far the most deadly epidemic of modern times: according to UNAIDS some 32 million people around the world have died of the disease which affects the immune system and leaves people vulnerable to opportunistic infections.

Today around 24.5 million people have access to retroviral drugs which when taken regularly efficiently stop the illness in its tracks and heavily reduce the risk of contamination.

  • 1968-1970: The Hong Kong flu –

Dr. Joel Gitlit gave flu vaccinations to some 200 seniors at a Board of Health clinic in New York City in 1968.
Credit…Robert Walker/The New York Times

Around one million people died of this disease, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Transmitted around the world between mid-1968 and early 1970, it in particular killed many children. It first started in Hong Kong, spread through Asia and reached the United States in late 1968. After lying low for several months it then hit Europe in late 1969.

For epidemic experts, this flu went down in history as the first of the modern era, due to the advent of high-speed air travel.

  • 1957-1958: Asian flu –

Asian Couple Having Cold, Blowing Nose Sneezing In Paper Tissue Sitting On Couch At Home Feeling Unwell.

Around 1.1 million people died of Asian flu, according to the CDC.

The pandemic hit in two aggressive waves. The virus first appeared in southern China in February 1957. Several months went by before it reached America and Europe.

The disease, which results in serious lung complications, in particular affected the elderly.

  • 1918-1919: Spanish flu –

The influenza ward at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, circa 1918. Credit…Harris & Ewing/Underwood Archives, via Getty Images

Spanish flu hit a large part of the world’s population in the wake of World War I, killing up to 50 million people, according to the CDC.

Striking between September 1918 and April 1919, it is considered the most deadly in history over such a short period.

Five times more people died of it than did in World War I. The first victims were recorded in the United States, before it spread to Europe and then around the world.

Its mortality rate was estimated at more than 2.5 percent, according to the CDC.

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