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Current pandemics
2009 influenza A/H1N1

The 2009 outbreak of a new strain of Influenza A virus subtype H1N1 created concerns that a new pandemic was occurring. In the latter half of April, 2009, the World Health Organization's pandemic alert level was sequentially increased from three to five until the announcement on 11 June 2009 that the pandemic level had been raised to its highest level, level six. This was the first pandemic on this level since 1968. Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), gave a statement on 11 June 2009 confirming that the H1N1 strain was indeed a pandemic, having nearly 30,000 confirmed cases worldwide.


HIV went directly from Africa to Haiti, then spread to the United States and much of the rest of the world beginning around 1969. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is currently a pandemic, with infection rates as high as 25% in southern and eastern Africa. In 2006 the HIV prevalence rate among pregnant women in South Africa was 29.1%. Effective education about safer sexual practices and bloodborne infection precautions training have helped to slow down infection rates in several African countries sponsoring national education programs. Infection rates are rising again in Asia and the Americas. AIDS could kill 31 million people in India and 18 million in China by 2025, according to projections by U.N. population researchers. AIDS death toll in Africa may reach 90-100 million by 2025.

Pandemics and notable epidemics through history

There have been a number of significant pandemics recorded in human history, generally zoonoses which came about with domestication of animals, such as influenza and tuberculosis. There have been a number of particularly significant epidemics that deserve mention above the "mere" destruction of cities:

  • Plague of Athens, 430 BC. Typhoid fever killed a quarter of the Athenian troops, and a quarter of the population over four years. This disease fatally weakened the dominance of Athens, but the sheer virulence of the disease prevented its wider spread; i.e. it killed off its hosts at a rate faster than they could spread it. The exact cause of the plague was unknown for many years. In January 2006, researchers from the University of Athens analyzed teeth recovered from a mass grave underneath the city, and confirmed the presence of bacteria responsible for typhoid.
  • Antonine Plague, 165-180. Possibly smallpox brought to the Italian peninsula by soldiers returning from the Near East; it killed a quarter of those infected, and up to five million in all. At the height of a second outbreak, the Plague of Cyprian (251-266), which may have been the same disease, 5,000 people a day were said to be dying in Rome.
  • Plague of Justinian, from 541 to 750, was the first recorded outbreak of the bubonic plague. It started in Egypt, and reached Constantinople the following spring, killing (according to the Byzantine chronicler Procopius) 10,000 a day at its height, and perhaps 40% of the city's inhabitants. The plague went on to eliminate a quarter to a half of the human population that it struck throughout the known world. It caused Europe's population to drop by around 50% between 550 and 700.
  • Black Death, started 1300s. The total number of deaths worldwide is estimated at 75 million people. Eight hundred years after the last outbreak, the plague returned to Europe. Starting in Asia, the disease reached Mediterranean and western Europe in 1348 (possibly from Italian merchants fleeing fighting in the Crimea), and killed an estimated 20 to 30 million Europeans in six years; a third of the total population, and up to a half in the worst-affected urban areas. It was the first of a cycle of European plague epidemics that continued until the 18th century. During this period, more than 100 plague epidemics swept across Europe. In England, for example, epidemics would continue in 2- to 5-year cycles from 1361 to 1480. By the 1370s, England's population was reduced by 50%. The Great Plague of London of 1665-66 was the last major outbreak of the plague in England. The disease killed an estimated 100,000 people, 20% of London's population.
  • Third Pandemic, started in China in the middle of the 19th century, spreading plague to all inhabited continents and killing 10 million people in India alone. During this pandemic, the United States saw its first case of plague in 1900 in San Francisco. Today, isolated cases of plague are still found in the western United States.

Encounters between European explorers and populations in the rest of the world often introduced local epidemics of extraordinary virulence. Disease killed the entire native (Guanches) population of the Canary Islands in the 16th century. Half the native population of Hispaniola in 1518 was killed by smallpox. Smallpox also ravaged Mexico in the 1520s, killing 150,000 in Tenochtitln alone, including the emperor, and Peru in the 1530s, aiding the European conquerors. Measles killed a further two million Mexican natives in the 1600s. In 1618-1619, smallpox wiped out 90% of the Massachusetts Bay Native Americans. During the 1770s, smallpox killed at least 30% of the Pacific Northwest Native Americans.Smallpox epidemics in 1780-1782 and 1837-1838 brought devastation and drastic depopulation among the Plains Indians. Some believe that the death of up to 95% of the Native American population of the New World was caused by Old World diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza. Over the centuries, the Europeans had developed high degrees of immunity to these diseases, while the indigenous peoples had no such immunity.

Smallpox devastated the native population of Australia, killing around 50% of Indigenous Australians in the early years of British colonisation. It also killed many New Zealand Maori. As late as 1848-49, as many as 40,000 out of 150,000 Hawaiians are estimated to have died of measles, whooping cough and influenza. Introduced diseases, notably smallpox, nearly wiped out the native population of Easter Island. In 1875, measles killed over 40,000 Fijians, approximately one-third of the population. The disease decimated the Andamanese population.Ainu population decreased drastically in the 19th century, due in large part to infectious diseases brought by Japanese settlers pouring into Hokkaido.

Researchers concluded that syphilis was carried from the New World to Europe after Columbus' voyages. The findings suggested Europeans could have carried the nonvenereal tropical bacteria home, where the organisms may have mutated into a more deadly form in the different conditions of Europe. The disease was more frequently fatal than it is today. Syphilis was a major killer in Europe during the Renaissance. Between 1602 and 1796, the Dutch East India Company sent almost a million Europeans to work in the Asia. Ultimately, only less than one-third made their way back to Europe.

The majority died of diseases.Disease killed more British soldiers in India than war. Between 1736 and 1834 only some 10% of East India Company's officers survived to take the final voyage home.

As early as 1803, the Spanish Crown organized a mission (the Balmis expedition) to transport the smallpox vaccine to the Spanish colonies, and establish mass vaccination programs there. By 1832, the federal government of the United States established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans.From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, the elimination or control of disease in tropical countries became a driving force for all colonial powers.The sleeping sickness epidemic in Africa was arrested due to mobile teams systematically screening millions of people at risk. In the 20th century, the world saw the biggest increase in its population in human history due to lessening of the mortality rate in many countries due to medical advances. The world population has grown from 1.6 billion in 1900 to an estimated 6.7 billion today.

  • First cholera pandemic 1816-1826. Previously restricted to the Indian subcontinent, the pandemic began in Bengal, then spread across India by 1820. 10,000 British troops and countless Indians died during this pandemic. It extended as far as China, Indonesia (where more than 100,000 people succumbed on the island of Java alone) and the Caspian Sea before receding. Deaths in India between 1817 and 1860 are estimated to have exceeded 15 million persons. Another 23 million died between 1865 and 1917. Russian deaths during a similar time period exceeded 2 million.
  • Second cholera pandemic 1829-1851. Reached Russia (see Cholera Riots), Hungary (about 100,000 deaths) and Germany in 1831, London in 1832 (more than 55,000 persons died in the United Kingdom),France, Canada (Ontario), and United States (New York) in the same year,and the Pacific coast of North America by 1834. A two-year outbreak began in England and Wales in 1848 and claimed 52,000 lives. It is believed that over 150,000 Americans died of cholera between 1832 and 1849.
  • Third pandemic 1852-1860. Mainly affected Russia, with over a million deaths. In 1852, cholera spread east to Indonesia and later invaded China and Japan in 1854. The Philippines were infected in 1858 and Korea in 1859. In 1859, an outbreak in Bengal once again led to the transmission of the disease to Iran, Iraq, Arabia and Russia.
  • Fourth pandemic 1863-1875. Spread mostly in Europe and Africa. At least 30,000 of the 90,000 Mecca pilgrims fell victim to the disease. Cholera claimed 90,000 lives in Russia in 1866.
  • In 1866, there was an outbreak in North America. It killed some 50,000 Americans.
  • Fifth pandemic 1881-1896. The 1883-1887 epidemic cost 250,000 lives in Europe and at least 50,000 in Americas. Cholera claimed 267,890 lives in Russia (1892);120,000 in Spain; 90,000 in Japan and 60,000 in Persia.
  • In 1892, cholera contaminated the water supply of Hamburg, and caused 8606 deaths.
  • Sixth pandemic 1899-1923. Had little effect in Europe because of advances in public health, but Russia was badly affected again (more than 500,000 people dying of cholera during the first quarter of the 20th century). The sixth pandemic killed more than 800,000 in India. The 1902-1904 cholera epidemic claimed over 200,000 lives in the Philippines. 27 epidemics were recorded during pilgrimages to Mecca from the 19th century to 1930, and more than 20,000 pilgrims died of cholera during the 1907-08 hajj.
  • Seventh pandemic 1962-66. Began in Indonesia, called El Tor after the strain, and reached Bangladesh in 1963, India in 1964, and the USSR in 1966.


World Health Organization influenza pandemic alert phases

  • The Greek physician Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine", first described influenza in 412 BC.
  • The first influenza pandemic was recorded in 1580 and since then influenza pandemics occurred every 10 to 30 years.
  • Influenza pandemics in 1729-1730, 1732-1733, 1781-1782, 1830, 1833-1834, 1847-1848.
  • The "Asiatic Flu", 1889-1890, was first reported in May 1889 in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. By October, it had reached Tomsk and the Caucasus. It rapidly spread west and hit North America in December 1889, South America in February-April 1890, India in February-March 1890, and Australia in March-April 1890. It was purportedly caused by the H2N8 type of flu virus. It had a very high attack and mortality rate. About 1 million people died in this pandemic."
  • The "Spanish flu", 1918-1919. First identified early in March 1918 in US troops training at Camp Funston, Kansas. By October 1918, it had spread to become a world-wide pandemic on all continents, and eventually infected an estimated one third of the world's population (or 500 million persons). Unusually deadly and virulent, it ended nearly as quickly as it began, vanishing completely within 18 months. In six months, some 50 million were dead;some estimates put the total of those killed worldwide at over twice that number. An estimated 17 million died in India, 675,000 in the United States and 200,000 in the UK. The virus was recently reconstructed by scientists at the CDC studying remains preserved by the Alaskan permafrost. They identified it as a type of H1N1 virus.
  • The "Asian Flu", 1957-58. An H2N2 virus caused about 70,000 deaths in the United States. First identified in China in late February 1957, the Asian flu spread to the United States by June 1957. It caused about 2 million deaths globally
  • The "Hong Kong Flu", 1968-69. An H3N2 caused about 34,000 deaths in the United States. This virus was first detected in Hong Kong in early 1968, and spread to the United States later that year. This pandemic of 1968 and 1969 killed an estimated one million people worldwide. Influenza A (H3N2) viruses still circulate today.


Typhus is sometimes called "camp fever" because of its pattern of flaring up in times of strife. (It is also known as "gaol fever" and "ship fever", for its habits of spreading wildly in cramped quarters, such as jails and ships.) Emerging during the Crusades, it had its first impact in Europe in 1489, in Spain. During fighting between the Christian Spaniards and the Muslims in Granada, the Spanish lost 3,000 to war casualties, and 20,000 to typhus. In 1528, the French lost 18,000 troops in Italy, and lost supremacy in Italy to the Spanish. In 1542, 30,000 soldiers died of typhus while fighting the Ottomans in the Balkans.

During the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), an estimated 8 million Germans were wiped out by bubonic plague and typhus fever. The disease also played a major role in the destruction of Napoleon's Grande Armee in Russia in 1812. Felix Markham thinks that 450,000 soldiers crossed the Neman on 25 June 1812, of whom less than 40,000 recrossed in anything like a recognizable military formation. In early 1813 Napoleon raised a new army of 500,000 to replace his Russian losses. In the campaign of that year over 219,000 of Napoleon's soldiers were to die of typhus. Typhus played a major factor in the Irish Potato Famine. During the World War I, typhus epidemics have killed over 150,000 in Serbia. There were about 25 million infections and 3 million deaths from epidemic typhus in Russia from 1918 to 1922. Typhus also killed numerous prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps and Soviet prisoner of war camps during World War II. More than 3.5 million Soviet POWs died in the Nazi custody out of 5.7 million


Smallpox is a highly contagious disease caused by the Variola virus. The disease killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans per year during the closing years of the 18th century. During the 20th century, it is estimated that smallpox was responsible for 300-500 million deaths. As recently as early 1950s an estimated 50 million cases of smallpox occurred in the world each year. After successful vaccination campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the WHO certified the eradication of smallpox in December 1979. To this day, smallpox is the only human infectious disease to have been completely eradicated.


Historically, measles was very prevalent throughout the world, as it is highly contagious. According to the National Immunization Program, 90% of people were infected with measles by age 15. Before the vaccine was introduced in 1963, there were an estimated 3-4 million cases in the U.S. each year. In roughly the last 150 years, measles has been estimated to have killed about 200 million people worldwide. In 2000 alone, measles killed some 777,000 worldwide. There were some 40 million cases of measles globally that year.

Measles is an endemic disease, meaning that it has been continually present in a community, and many people develop resistance. In populations that have not been exposed to measles, exposure to a new disease can be devastating. In 1529, a measles outbreak in Cuba killed two-thirds of the natives who had previously survived smallpox. The disease had ravaged Mexico, Central America, and the Inca civilization.


One-third of the world's current population has been infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and new infections occur at a rate of one per second.About one in ten of these latent infections will eventually progress to active disease, which, if left untreated, kills more than half of its victims. Annually, 8 million people become ill with tuberculosis, and 2 million people die from the disease worldwide. In the 19th century, tuberculosis killed an estimated one-quarter of the adult population of Europe; and by 1918 one in six deaths in France were still caused by TB. By the late 19th century, 70 to 90% of the urban populations of Europe and North America were infected with M. tuberculosis, and about 40% of working-class deaths in cities were from TB. During the 20th century, tuberculosis killed approximately 100 million people. TB is still one of the most important health problems in the developing world.


Leprosy, also known as Hansens Disease, is caused by a bacillus, Mycobacterium leprae. It is a chronic disease with an incubation period of up to five years. Since 1985, 15 million people worldwide have been cured of leprosy. In 2002, 763,917 new cases were detected. It is estimated that there are between one and two million people permanently disabled because of leprosy.

Historically, leprosy has affected mankind since at least 600 BC, and was well-recognized in the civilizations of ancient China, Egypt and India.During the High Middle Ages, Western Europe witnessed an unprecedented outbreak of leprosy. Numerous leprosaria, or leper hospitals, sprang up in the Middle Ages; Matthew Paris estimated that in the early 13th century there were 19,000 across Europe.


Malaria is widespread in tropical and subtropical regions, including parts of the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Each year, there are approximately 350-500 million cases of malaria.Drug resistance poses a growing problem in the treatment of malaria in the 21st century, since resistance is now common against all classes of antimalarial drugs, with the exception of the artemisinins.

Malaria was once common in most of Europe and North America, where it is now for all purposes non-existent. Malaria may have contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.The disease became known as "Roman fever". Plasmodium falciparum became a real threat to colonists and indigenous people alike when it was introduced into the Americas along with the slave trade. Malaria devastated the Jamestown colony and regularly ravaged the South and Midwest. By 1830 it had reached the Pacific Northwest. During the American Civil War, there were over 1.2 million cases of malaria among soldiers of both sides. The southern U.S. continued to be afflicted with millions of cases of malaria into the 1930s.

Yellow fever

Yellow fever has been a source of several devastating epidemics. Cities as far north as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston were hit with epidemics. In 1793, the largest yellow fever epidemic in U.S. history killed as many as 5,000 people in Philadelphia-roughly 10% of the population. About half of the residents had fled the city, including President George Washington. Approximately 300,000 people are believed to have died from yellow fever in Spain during the 19th century. In colonial times, West Africa became known as "the white man's grave" because of malaria and yellow fever.

Unknown causes

There are also a number of unknown diseases that were extremely serious but have now vanished, so the etiology of these diseases cannot be established. The cause of English Sweat in 16th-century England, which struck people down in an instant and was more greatly feared than even the bubonic plague, is still unknown.

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