Deadly Epidemics

Written by on October 28, 2012 in Health - No comments | Print this page


An epidemic refers to a higher than expected rate of infection by a particular disease. The disease may be spread by multiple infected hosts, or from one common source.

However, there’s no precise distinction between what counts as an epidemic and what counts simply as an “outbreak”. This may be determined partly by how the spread of a particular disease is publicized. It also depends on what the expected rate of infection is. As an example, the Spanish Flu accounted for approximately 75,000,000 deaths, whereas a more recent epidemic, the Swine Flu, took the lives of about 14,500. Far fewer people died from Swine Flu, but the spread of the disease happened so quickly and in such a localized way that it was also termed an epidemic.

1918 – 1920: Spanish Flu

People commonly get the flu, a short name for the influenza virus. However, sometimes unusually virulent strains of the virus can spread at great speed.

The outbreak that began in 1918 was one of the most deadly the world has experienced. The fast spread and violent effects of this flu strain were likely fueled by the conditions surrounding World War I. The movement of troops around the world helped spread infection, and war-time malnourishment decreased people’s immunity. The disease was named the Spanish flu because of a belief at the time that the Spanish were hardest hit by the virus. However, this may be because Spain maintained a neutral position in the war and so didn’t censor news about the spread of the flu, whereas many of its neighbouring countries did.

Of those infected with the disease, 20% died. The usual flu epidemic mortality rate is 0.1%.

Death toll: 75,000,000

1956 – 1958: Asian Flu

Originating in China, this strain of influenza is believed to have originated from a virus carried by wild ducks, which mutated and combined with a pre-existing strain of the virus found in humans.

First identified in Gizhou province in China in early 1956, it spread to Singapore by February of 1957 and reached Hong Kong by April. By June, cases were being reported in the United States. The death toll in the United States was about 69,800. Asia was hit much harder, with various reports suggesting a total death toll of anywhere between one and four million. The World Health Organisation (WHO) settled on “about two million.”

The virus was of the H2N2 subtype, referring to its count of Hemagglutinin and Neuraminidase proteins. A vaccine was developed to contain the original virus, but it subsequently developed into the H3N2 strain, which caused the Honk Kong epidemic.

Death Toll:  +/- 2,000,000

1968 – 1969: Honk Kong Flu

The H3N2 strain was first discovered in Hong Kong on 13 July, 1968. By the end of that month, extensive outbreaks had occurred across both Vietnam and Singapore. By September 1969, the disease had spread to India, the Philippines, Australia and Europe. By 1969, it had reached the United States, Japan, Africa and South America.

Most flu-related fatalities result from secondary bacterial infections, which strike while the body is weak. The more widespread availability of antibiotics in the late 1960s meant that the Hong Kong Flu didn’t lead to as many deaths as it had in the late 1950s, although it was a very similar strain of the virus. Like the H2N2 strain, H3N2 contained avian influenza genes.

Death toll: +/- 1,000,000

1981 – present: HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS is a global threat, with an estimated total of 34 million people infested as of 2010. Although the numbers of people infected and dying of the virus have been steadily dropping, the number of people living with the virus has been steadily increasing.

The Sub-Saharan region of Africa is the most severely affected. An estimated 68% of all HIV cases and 66% of all deaths associated with the disease occur in this region. South Africa has the largest infected population in the world, at 5.9 million people. Factors such as poor economic conditions, lack of relevant education and use of dirty needles in healthcare clinics all contribute to the high rates of infection.

HIV can be dormant in your system for years before you suffer from any ill effects. Because of its relatively “hidden” nature, the infection spreads readily – particularly in areas where testing kits and clinics are few and far between.

Death toll: +/- 25,000,000

2009 – 2010: Swine Flu

The Swine Flu was a second outbreak of the H1N1 strain – the first being the Spanish flu of 1918. This version of the virus was the result of reassortment of swine, bird and human flu viruses, along with a Eurasian pig flu virus that led to adoption of the name “Swine Flu”. It occurred for the first time in Veracruz, Mexico, with toxicological evidence showing that the epidemic had been present there for many years before it was recognized.

With similar symptoms to other forms of influenza, Swine Flu led to fever, a dry cough, headache, muscular pain, chills, fatigue, diarrhea, and, in severe cases, neurological problems.

Although the death toll from Swine Flu has been relatively low, it spread rapidly. Some blame the World Health Organization for spreading unnecessary panic about this flu by coining it an outbreak and failing to provide immediate, balanced information and assistance.

Death toll: +/- 14,500

This is a guest post.  Post provided courtesy of Jeff from, an excellent place to check up on medical aids before the next epidemic appears.


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