The great epidemics of history

The Chinese coronavirus in Wuhan province reminds us that contagious diseases have always decimated populations. A quick reminder of the main epidemics.

An epidemic (epi = above and demos = people) is the appearance and spread of a contagious infectious disease that strikes at the same time and in the same place a large number of people, animals (epizootic) or plants (epiphytic). A flu epidemic is regularly referred to as a flu epidemic. If the epidemic spreads over a large geographical area, it is called a pandemic (pan=all). History has left us some traces of these infectious diseases that have terrorized societies since ancient times.

Leprosy is mentioned in the Bible. But it is not a skin disease. It’s a divine punishment. The leper was removed from the community because he was unclean. Now Jesus goes to a leper and heals him. After having wreaked havoc in the Greco-Roman world, leprosy reappeared in Europe around the year 1000 and caused great terror. The lepers are isolated in awkward places, outside the towns and villages. Lepers, believed to be possessed, had to signal their presence by waving small bells. Leprosy almost disappeared in the 16th century. However, infectious foci remained in certain geographical areas. In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) counted 216,108 cases worldwide.


The plague is a disease common to humans and animals. It is caused by the bacillus Yersinia discovered by the Pasteur Institute in 1894. The epidemic, also mentioned in the Old Testament, wreaked havoc among the ancient Greeks and Romans. The antonine plague (between 165 and 190) is probably the best documented epidemic of ancient times. Some scientists believe it was actually smallpox. In any case, the epidemic is probably responsible for the decline of the Western Roman Empire.
In the Middle Ages, the plague caused considerable damage in Europe. The Black Death of 1347-1352 caused about 7 million deaths in France (out of 17 million for the entire French population). There were other epidemics: Barcelona in 1590, Milan in 1630, London in 1665, Marseille in 1720 and the plague of ragpickers in Paris in 1920. In modern times, Egypt, Vietnam, India and Madagascar are still victims of the plague.
Diseases that have struck other species have been wrongly called “plague” such as fowl plague, swine plague….

Diphtheria’s been known since ancient times. -Diphtheria’s been known since ancient times. Due to Corynebacterium diphtheriae or Löffler-Klebs bacillus, it is likely to produce a toxin affecting first the upper respiratory tract, then the heart and peripheral nervous system. The epidemic was stopped by vaccination in 1924. But the disintegration of the Soviet system, the non-vaccination, made the disease reappear since 1980. An outbreak of the disease caused thousands of deaths in 1994 in Russia and Ukraine.

The Spanish Flu of 1918-1920

Syphilis, otherwise known as smallpox, is a sexually transmitted disease. It is believed to have originated in the Americas and was imported into Europe after the conquest of Christopher Columbus. It appeared in the 16th century. The germ responsible for Syphilis was isolated in 1905. But it caused unheard-of devastation in the 19th century. Many personalities were contaminated such as Baudelaire, Maupassant, Daudet and many others. Syphilis was eradicated with the discovery of penicillin in 1943.
Cholera is an acute diarrhoeal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacillus Vibrio cholerae. According to the WHO, cholera remains a global public health threat affecting mainly poor populations. It is estimated that there are 1.3 to 4 million cases of cholera and 21,000 to 143,000 deaths due to the disease worldwide each year.
influenza is a frequent and contagious infectious disease caused by four types of viruses: A, B, C and D. Seasonal influenza (or flu) is composed of two influenza A viruses (usually H1N1 and an H3N2) and one influenza B virus. It results in a set of symptoms that include fever, cough, pharyngitis… Most of the time, the flu disappears after a few days. But it can develop into several types of complications, such as pneumonia or dehydration, which can lead to the death of even the most fragile patients. Every year in France, influenza is the cause of several hundred deaths.
The Spanish flu that swept through Europe between 1918 and 1920 is due to a particularly virulent strain (H1N1). It caused 40 million deaths.
AIDS appeared in 1981. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome is the result of the destruction of immune system cells by HIV. Trasmitted by body fluids, AIDS is a pandemic that has caused the death of about 32 million people, mainly in Asia and Africa.
-Many epidemics can be cited such as the Ebola virus (in Africa), hepatitis C, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome due to the SARS-CoV virus) of the coronavirus family. Chikungunya, a tropical infectious disease transmitted by mosquitoes.