Within the past few years there has been a lot of media sensationalism over things like “Swine Flu” or “SARS” and even the dreaded “Avian Bird Flu” which all have generally turned out to be much ado about nothing. Especially when put into perspective and compared to well known illnesses that kill thousands or millions each and every year. Whichever new disease emerges, it is reported as some kind of apocalypse causing disaster that will surely be the next pandemic.
While an apocalypse causing disease is certainly possible, especially with the entire world being constantly exposed through international travel; I thought I would take a historical look at some of the closest calls to a complete apocalypse caused by disease in the recorded history of mankind. Perhaps it wasn’t the apocalypse when we look back on it now, but if you were living in the time period you certainly would have felt like it was.
Now a days, there certainly is an ever present fear that some major virus will wipe out humanity. Imagine something like HIV mutating and becoming able to be transmitted by coughing. Or better yet, the super popular zombie apocalypse virus scenarios.
As far as the past is concerned, we won’t ever be able to accurately quantify the numbers of people killed in each of these epidemics and pandemics. We can make some pretty good rough assumptions however and then imagine what these numbers would mean today, with the vastly more connected world and much larger population.
Here are some of the best examples of near apocalypse causing diseases of the past (and present).
The Great Influenza – The pandemic that indiscriminately killed more people in a shorter period of time than any other disease in human history.
The Great Influenza struck in 1918 – 1919 and was the single greatest plague in history in terms of numbers of people killed. This deadly strain of the flu virus killed 50 to 100 million people making it one of the deadliest pandemics of all time. The scary part about this outbreak was that it killed this many people in 6 months.
It was widely known as the “Spanish Flu” although it appears to have originated in America and then spread elsewhere. What really shook people up about this outbreak was that it killed healthy, young individuals at a very high rate; unlike the normal flu or other diseases which are usually far more deadly to children and the elderly.
Historical research indicates that it infect 8 in 10 young adults, a scary figure considering this demographic is usually much more resistant than others to disease. Adding to, and most likely aiding, this pandemic was the horrific conditions caused by the first world war, which surely exacerbated the illness due to the large numbers of young soldiers in barracks, packed very closely together in close quarters.
Scientists believe that the initial appearance of the virus was in Haskell County, Kansas at a military base. The movement of the infected soldiers quickly spread this violent influenza mutation around the country and the globe. Since large numbers of troops were on the move all over the world and forces were constantly in close proximity to one another in each nation, this virus decimated a staggering number of people.
Assuming this disease killed 100 million people in the 6 month period it ravaged the world in 1918-1919 and since the global population was only 1.8 billion at the time, this figure in 2012 (with a global population of 7 billion or so) would be closer to 350 million people. That is also low balling it because in modern times the entire world is much more globally connected than it was in the early 1900′s. Tens of millions of people cross borders every day and almost no localities would be safe from the spread of the virus. This same virus could realistically kill 1 billion or more people if it were to occur today. And all of this within 6 months!
To put this into perspective, at the height of normal flu season in the United States, hospitals become packed and the number of available care for each patient, including respirators and other medical devices along with hospital staff, reach nearly to their capacity. This influenza outbreak, if it were to occur today would entirely overwhelm the healthcare system and there would not be even close to enough hospital beds to treat the affected people.
A global flu pandemic of a virus that is this deadly is bar none the most likely threat to the greatest number of people in the modern world. This is probably why things like “Swine Flu” and “Bird Flu” get so much hype, people know that if it is a real serious virus with a very high mortality rate the governments of the world do not stand a chance and they are not even close to prepared for a pandemic of this magnitude.
Why wouldn’t the government, (specifically the United States) be worried about another outbreak of the proven near apocalyptic threat of a flu pandemic?
Ask the pharmaceutical lobbyists who receive for their companies nearly 36% of all the money for research from the federal government.
They would rather worry about making sure 70 year old men can get a boner, people who are sad can get fake happy pills and children who act like children can be medicated into unquestioning little zombies with no emotions.
Saving the world is not the goal of these companies. There is more money to be made in geriatric boner pills. Always remember, the money is not in the cure — it is in the treatment so you keep coming back…
Bubonic Plague – The Black Death that devastated mankind and was believed to be the wrath of God unleashing the apocalypse.
Most people know that the Bubonic Plague or, “The Black Death” as it is commonly known, killed around 30% of Europe. They usually aren’t aware that it also killed roughly the same numbers of people in India and China, while also ravaging the Middle East and Africa. Considering the initial outbreak was in 14th century Europe, the reporting of global figures is not as accurate as we would like.
What we do know is that left untreated, 2 out of 3 infected humans die within 4 days of contracting the disease. The Bubonic Plague certainly killed over 100 million people and a gigantic percentage of the global population at the time. This plague however killed this number of people over a period of 200 years while the Great Influenza decimated this number of people in a matter of months.
While most researchers and historians agree that this plague was the result of a strain of bacteria that passes from rodents to fleas, and from fleas to humans modern research has suggested that it is possible this plague could have been caused by a virus similar to Anthrax or Ebola.
Whatever the case, modern antibiotics are capable of curing the disease caused by bacteria (Y. Pestis) that is commonly attributed to the Bubonic Plague. Unfortunately, bacteria are becoming stronger and more and more resistant…
Malaria – A deadly mosquito born disease that continues to kill by the million.
Malaria has been killing huge numbers of people every single year even in modern times. The reason you don’t hear about it is that modern industrial nations have almost completely eradicated the disease in their own geographic locations through the use of DDT and other pesticides targeting the disease carrying mosquito.
In fact, after the second world war, Malaria was almost completely wiped out of existence because of the widespread use of DDT. The banning of this chemical has allowed Malaria to slowly but surely make a comeback and huge numbers of people are killed every single year. According to the World Health Organization, Malaria is killing almost 3 million people a year in the undeveloped regions of the world.
With numbers that high every single year, Malaria could quite possibly be the single biggest killer of mankind in terms of sustained casualties overtime. It is just so easily preventable that rich governments don’t worry about it and impoverished nations fall victim to the deadly mosquito born disease.
AIDS – A death sentence delivered by an incurable virus, via bodily fluid
Aids may not have killed as many people as some of the other near apocalyptic diseases, but since it entered onto the scene in the early 1980′s it has claimed the life of nearly 30 million people. The hysteria surrounding AIDS when it first became an epidemic is typical of the early onset of a new plague. Nobody knows how it is contracted or how to prevent it so myths and misinformation abound.
Aids is ravaging Africa and many other global populations and the inability to cure it is what lands it on this list. While percentages of the population infected varies widely all over the globe, the disease did manage to become a pandemic and its nasty ability to attack the bodies immune system is a terrifying prospect, certainly making it a possible disease of apocalyptic proportions.
The only thing preventing AIDS from spreading rapidly, quickly and having a massive apocalyptic impact on the human race, is the mode of transmission. Since it must be transmitted through bodily fluids, there are only a hand few of ways to contract the disease. Unfortunately, they are fun things that many humans enjoy; like having sex and injecting drugs.
The real danger lies in the possibility of the HIV virus mutating. If HIV ever becomes airborne, waterborne or contaminates food, its game over. The makeup of the HIV virus is such that this cannot occur presently because the virus must be in bodily fluids to survive. However with an organism this small, surely mutations on the cellular level are quite possible that could enable this possibility at least theoretically. Imagine if it was selectively altered to be used as a biological weapon?
The Common Flu
Here is a figure you may not be aware of. The common, every day influenza virus kills around 40,000 people every single year in America alone. The flu is responsible for an average of 36,000 deaths a year according to the latest CDC report in the United States. This is the regular flu we are talking about here.
To put a little perspective on this, 14,748 people were murdered in the United States in 2010. 32,885 people died in car accidents. So the common flu, in its current relatively stable variations, kills more people than homicide and car accidents.
During the big “Swing Flu” scare of the late 2000′s, around 4000 people died from around 25 million infections in the US. This is a rate of around 0.00016 deaths per infection. With the common flu you have a 1 in 10000 chance of dying on average which is around the exact same percentage.
The common flu has some pretty serious apocalypse causing potential because slight mutations turn this virus into something like the Great Influenza. Its ease of transmission, widespread infection and ability to cause complications such as pneumonia make it a serious threat.
On top of that, with 10′s of millions of people infected every single year, that is some serious mutation potential just based on the law of large numbers and the way organisms mutate.
The Plague of Justinian – The Sweeping Plague that Crushed the Mediterranean peoples.
While we do not know for sure what exactly the disease that caused this plague was, historical accounts sound very similar to some variation of the Bubonic Plague. This plague swept through the Mediterranean nations, killing at least 25% of the population surrounding the Mediterranean sea in and around the year 541 A.D.
For example, first hand accounts of this plague recorded over 10,000 deaths a day at its zenith, in the city of Constantinople alone. While bacterial plagues stand little chance against modern medicine and technology, the increasing use of antibiotics necessarily increases the resistance of bacteria who survive.
Super resistant bacteria are becoming more and more common and they are developing faster than new antibiotics can keep up with them
The First Cholera Pandemic
In the early to mid 1800′s an outbreak of Cholera, said to originate in Calcutta, India quickly spread throughout the entire subcontinent and beyond. The pandemic reached China, the Middle East and even parts of Russia.
Mortality figures are impossible to even estimate, because there were no accurate records kept on indigenous populations in India and beyond.
Our best estimation of the scope of this Cholera epidemic comes from the reports of the British Army that was stationed in India. The British Army reported over 100,000 deaths within its own ranks, so the scope of destruction on the native population and beyond was certainly astronomical.
As far as historical research indicates, the source of the outbreak can be traced to a large quantity of infected rice. Since this initial Cholera outbreak, the WHO counts 6 other Cholera pandemics with the last of these still effectively occurring today in the undeveloped world.
The danger of a Cholera epidemic is really the mode of its transmission. Cholera spreads through infected food and water which makes it prime for a potential biological weapon.
The Antonine Plague
Considering this plague occurred from 165 to 180 A.D. figures can be pretty difficult to come by. Accounts of this plague suggest that it was likely an outbreak of smallpox, and it could have likely killed roughly 5 million people.
For example, historical Roman accounts record 5,000 deaths a day in the capital city of Rome.
The Asiatic Flu – The Russian Flu mutation that spread at an alarming rate.
This strain of the Flu originated in Russia in early May of 1889, and by December it had reached the shores of North America. By February of 1890, it had infected people all the way down to South America. Sweeping the globe eventually hitting as far as, India and Australia. This particular flu strain was extremely deadly with reported deaths in Western Europe alone reaching as high as 250,000 people.
Smallpox and the Decimation of Native Americans
Before European explorers reached the continent of North America there was an estimated population of 12 million. By 1900, the US census had recorded roughly 237,000 Native Americans left in America. Europeans coming into contact with the Native Americans was essentially the apocalypse for their entire civilization.
Smallpox cannot be blamed for this entire reduction in the native population by any means, other diseases brought from Europe certainly killed many Native Americans, who had virtually no resistance to European Diseases. Smallpox however was by and large the number one biggest single killer of Native Americans.
Typhus epidemics and their destructive power.
Typhus is a disease that, strangely enough, is transmitted primarily by body lice. Typhus deaths are difficult to put an estimated figure on but many historical accounts suggest the figure is extremely high.
For example, as Napoleon’s soldiers left Russia in their historically infamous retreat, Typhus claimed more lives of Napoleon’s forces than the Russian Army. It was also interestingly a major influencing factor on the large numbers of deaths in Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine. On top of this, Typhus claimed over 9 million civilian and military lives during World War I.
Typhus outbreaks have occurred as early as 420 B.C., where the first recorded appearance of the disease was notably The Plague of Athens. Typhus, like Malaria is preventable through the destruction of the pests that carry the disease.
Polio – the disease that triggered the cure for bacterial infections.
Polio was a gripping fear of many Americans in the mid 19th century. The 1952 polio outbreak in particular sent 3,000 in the United States to their grave along with leaving countless numbers permanently crippled.
The most famous example was the American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt who famously was refined to a wheel chair by the debilitating disease.
Typhoid Fever: the dreaded outbreaks that spread through food and water.
Typhoid is another deadly disease spread by water and food that have been infected by the infamous and very common salmonella bacteria.
Modern sanitation has done wonders for the eradication of the disease, but this disease was one of the most deadly and common afflictions to pillage earlier generations. The disease spread so widely back in the day, because people were ignorant to the effects of the water table and they dug their wells near their outhouses, essentially contaminating their own water supplies.
Near Apocalypse Causing Diseases from History: Conclusion.
If we take a look at history we can clearly see the widespread devastation that many diseases have had on populations. It is interesting to note that while these diseases may have no been “the apocalypse” in our understanding of it, i.e. shit totally hitting the fan everywhere, for the people in these locations or near these locations they were certainly apocalyptic in nature. Many people lost almost everyone they ever knew, even if they were lucky enough to survive. Governments, as well as people, are very resilient by nature and very often they surpass insurmountable odds.
A pandemic, even if it does not completely bring down the entire world or powerful governments is apocalyptic to individuals if they or the people they know and love are infected or perish as a result of them. Even if a pandemic of apocalyptic proportions were to strike and it did not completely destroy society, survival for yourself and your loved ones would require preparation, your cunning and a little bit of luck or divine intervention.
These plagues and pandemics, in their own way, were all near apocalypse causing diseases that spread and took lives at incredible rates, and in incredible numbers. They severely impacted the locations that they occurred and the represent some of the most deadly outbreaks and strains of disease in human history. We tend to put a lot of faith in modern medicine, because truth be told, mankind has made incredible advancements with science and technology. This doesn’t mean we should be complacent however, mother nature is crafty; she constantly reminds us that she is in charge. So far, nothing has been able to completely wipe us out obviously, but that is not to say it isn’t possible.
Be ready for anything, plagues occur and mankind is due for a major one. We can only hope our technology and medicine can protect us. If not, your ass better have the right survival gear.
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