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Surprising facts about pandemics past and present
Although COVID-19 is the largest global pandemic of the 21st century, pandemics have been part of the human experience for thousands of years. Let’s take a look at some previous pandemics, what we’ve learned from them and what marks they’ve left on our culture. Practices from hundreds of years ago might seem surprisingly familiar. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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History’s largest pandemic was caused by fleas
The Black Death was a bubonic plague pandemic that swept from Asia across Europe from 1347 to the early 1350s, killing more than 20 million people in Europe alone, almost one-third of the continent’s population. At the time, people believed that disease was caused by divine punishment, misalignment of the planets, or “foul air.” Centuries later, researchers found that a bacterium, Yersinia pestis, was responsible, most likely spread by fleas.
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Black Death survivors threw wild parties
If the current pandemic has made you fantasize about going on a massive bender, you’re in good company. Throughout the Black Death, survivors, and people who were unknowingly at risk for the disease, threw wild parties. “They were a noise complaint in a suburban newspaper, the neighbors you hear screaming to the blaring bass-heavy beats until 4 a.m..,” classical radio station WQXR reports. “Partygoers could walk into any house and claim it as theirs because people no longer were concerned with property rights.”
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Our ancestors were used to this
While the idea of introducing, relaxing and then periodically reinstating social distancing measures during a pandemic may be strange and scary to us, our ancestors were used to it. After the initial 1346 outbreak, plague kept popping up here and there in Europe for at least another 300 years. In William Shakespeare’s time, plays and other mass gatherings would be periodically banned for months at a time to stop the spread of disease. According to The Guardian, Macbeth may have been written during an epidemic in 1606.
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The “Spanish flu” probably began in Kansas
The influenza pandemic that infected about one-third of the world’s population and killed tens of millions of people between 1918 and 1920 is known around the world as the Spanish flu. In fact, it’s thought to have originated in western Kansas and spread around the world as soldiers left for, and returned from, the First World War. “During World War I, Spain was a neutral country with a free media that covered the outbreak from the start,” the History Channel explains. “Because Spanish news sources were the only ones reporting on the flu, many believed it originated there. The Spanish, meanwhile, believed the virus came from France and called it the ‘French Flu.’”
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A 1957 pandemic killed 116,000 Americans
Other than the 1918 flu pandemic, North America has experienced two other devastating flu pandemics well within living memory. The 1957 “Asian flu” killed 1.1 million people worldwide and 116,000 in the United States. A decade later, in 1968, another avian flu strain known as the “Hong Kong flu” killed between 1 and 4 million people worldwide.
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HIV first spread in chimps
The Centers for Disease Control estimate that three out of four new diseases in humans first develop in animals, mutating over time to attack humans instead of birds, bats or monkeys. Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, is no different. The virus is believed to have made the leap to humans in the early 20th century when hunters in central Africa came into contact with the blood of chimps infected with simian immunodeficiency virus. However, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), the disease caused by the virus, only became a global pandemic with the rise of international air travel, in the 1960s and 1970s.
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Citizen scientists played a huge role in AIDS research
By 1987, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), the disease caused by the HIV virus, had killed at least 40,000 people in the United States alone, mostly in the LGBT community. Citizens’ group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) lobbied the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health to rework and speed up drug trials. David France, author of an acclaimed book on the AIDS crisis, says while scientists would have eventually found the treatments that controlled AIDS, there’s “no question” that angry, committed citizens made it happen sooner.
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Two people in the world are known to be cured of AIDS
Although the first antiretroviral drugs—treatments that controlled AIDS—were introduced in 1995, the disease is still generally considered incurable. However, two people, including Timothy Brown, known as the Berlin Patient (pictured), are believed to have been cured of the virus after undergoing stem cell transplants to treat blood conditions. Researchers have said that the transplants are too risky and invasive to “cure” the disease in a large number of patients.
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Quarantine was invented during the Black Death
Although people in the 1300s had no real scientific understanding of what caused disease, by 1347 some forward-thinking Italians had realized it was somehow connected to person-to-person contact. Sailors arriving in the Sicilian port of Ragusa (pictured) were held on board their ships for 30 days, and the period was later increased to 40 days. Known as the quarantino in Italian, this 40-day mandatory isolation gave rise to modern quarantine methods.
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Cats and dogs were blamed for spreading plague
In England in the 1500s, cats and dogs were believed to carry the disease, so they were slaughtered en masse. “Ironically, these animals could have assisted in reducing the rat population,” Londonist magazine observes. It was estimated that 200,000 cats and 40,000 dogs were killed in London in an attempt to beat back the catastrophic 1665 outbreak.
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Medieval pandemic management
Some of the methods used to prevent the spread of plague sound familiar to anyone living through COVID-19. In addition to “closure of public places like theatres and dancing-houses,” authorities ordered people who were known to be infected and anyone who lived with them to stay in their homes, sometimes forcibly shutting them inside. According to the BBC history portal, “people refused to touch other people.” People were also worried about catching the disease by handling money; they obviously couldn’t pay with debit, so they tossed coins into jars of vinegar instead.
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Cures and charms
Medieval doctors tried a variety of methods to treat, cure or prevent the plague. Mustard, mint sauce, applesauce and horseradish were used to “balance wet, dry, hot and cold” in patients’ diets, a practice based on ancient Greek theories. Desperate people tried carrying lucky rabbits’ feet, whipping themselves, drinking vinegar or 10-year-old molasses, eating crushed minerals (including arsenic), or rubbing chopped snake, chopped pigeon or a plucked chicken on infected sores.
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European warfare didn’t conquer the Americas—European germs did
When European explorers first arrived in the Americas, they brought invisible and fatal cargo, namely smallpox. Indigenous people in the Americas had no exposure to the disease, which swept on ahead of the invading Europeans, laying waste to the Inca civilization of Peru before the Spanish conquistadors even reached the area. By some estimates, smallpox and other imported diseases killed up to 90 per cent of the Indigenous population.
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Migrants have always been scapegoated during pandemics
In the U.S. and Canada, reports have surfaced of people harassing Asians and Jews, accusing them of causing the COVID-19 pandemic. In India, Muslims have been harassed; in China, Africans have been evicted from student housing and faced “increased scrutiny,” according to the BBC. In the 1300s in plague-stricken England, there were “violent attacks on Flemish merchants and weavers,” and Jewish settlements were burned. “People attacked outsiders for no other reason than that they were different,” The Guardian explains.
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Bubonic plague still exists today
The last major plague outbreak in Europe effectively ended in 1666. However, the disease is still around. It most recently resurfaced in 2017, when 2,000 cases were reported in a three-month span in Madagascar. Authorities tracked down 7,000 people who had come into contact with known patients, about 9,300 people received antibiotic treatment and a wider disaster was averted. Plague can now be treated with antibiotics, and better hygiene makes it less likely that fleas will stick around on human skin. In the United States, about seven cases are reported annually.
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Woodstock was held during a forgotten pandemic
The 1968 flu pandemic has been “largely forgotten” in a decade that included the Vietnam War and some of the most nerve-wracking episodes of the Cold War. “There were no social distancing recommendations from the government, closures of public spaces or mandatory business closings in either [the 1957 or the 1968] pandemics,” medical historian Jacob Steere-Williams tells Sarasota magazine. Large events such as Woodstock still went forward. The 1968 flu first struck Wuhan—the same city initially hit hard by the coronavirus—before “racing across the globe on commercial flights and ships,” killing 60,000 people in Germany and “disabling” half of France’s workforce.
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Europe’s first plague scared people so much that they left home with name tags
During the Justinianic plague, which killed up to 50 million people in Asia, Europe and North Africa, fear ran rampant and “thousands of bodies piled up in mass graves” in places like Constantinople. According to NPR, when people left the house during outbreaks, they often did so with name tags on, “so they could be identified if they suddenly collapsed.”
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Pandemic pet masks
During the 1918 flu pandemic, like today, masks were mandatory in some American cities. “Photos from the time show people going to and fro, their faces swathed in gauze,” according to Atlas Obscura. Some politicians were concerned pets might spread the disease, and called for cat and dog culls. Others took a more humane approach and gave their furry friends masks. Some concerned cat owners in China have started masking their cats during COVID-19.
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Cholera crackdown helped spark the Russian Revolution
Cholera is caused by a bacterium (pictured) spread by dirty water. When the second great cholera pandemic reached Russia in the early 1830s, Tsar Nicholas I established a strict quarantine system. Health officials, however, made the situation worse by “indiscriminately throwing together” cholera patients and patients with other illnesses, and rumours spread that doctors were trying to kill off the sick. Riots broke out—riots which would become a regular feature of cholera outbreaks. Decades later, during the fifth pandemic, riots were violently suppressed by the authorities. At least one researcher says this social unrest indirectly set the stage for the Russian Revolution, in 1917.
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The truth in the tooth
The Justinianic Plague ended nearly 1,500 years ago, but the genetic code of the bacterium that caused it lives on, in its victims’ teeth. Researchers at Northern Arizona University extracted bacterial DNA from blood found in the preserved dental pulp of victims’ teeth at a mass grave in Germany, and were able to trace the origin of the bacterium to China. “The biology of the pathogen no doubt could cause another pandemic if it weren't for the changes in human culture and medicine,” researcher Paul Keim tells NPR. Fortunately, modern-day plague outbreaks can be controlled by antibiotics and contact tracing.
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The beaked carnival mask has its origins in early PPE
The beaked mask popular at European carnivals has its origins in an early attempt at personal protective equipment. During one of the last European plague outbreaks in the 1600s, French physician Charles de Lorme popularized a protective uniform for doctors. “It consisted of a thick black overcoat, gloves, circular glass to seal the eyes behind the mask, and often a wand, to inspect patients from a distance,” according to Atlas Obscura. There was also a beaked mask. Doctors, believing the disease was spread by “foul air,” would stuff the beak with herbs like peppermint to keep the stench away, and the “plague doctor” image was born. Unfortunately, the masks, while distinctive, weren’t very effective.
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Plague likely contributed to the fall of Rome
The Roman Empire was never quite the same after the Justinianic Plague burned its way through Roman territory. Justinian himself caught the plague and survived, but he struggled to recruit and pay soldiers after the plague, and territories that his armies had conquered rose up in revolt. By the time the plague finally burned itself out completely, in AD 750, a new world order had arisen. “Was the pestilence partially responsible?” journalist Elizabeth Kolbert speculates in The New Yorker. “If so, history is written not only by men but also by microbes.”