10 Ways Covid-19 And Previous Pandemics Differ

By Ellen Kershner on May 25 2020 in World Facts

Photo by Tedward Quinn on Unsplash
Photo by Tedward Quinn on Unsplash
  • The earliest recorded pandemic occurred in Greece around 430 B.C.,
  • There were seven cholera pandemics, and the first one happened in 1817.
  • Adults ages 65 and up are a high-risk population for COVID-19, but the 1918 flu targeted children under five and adults between 20 and 40.
  • Like Cholera, the Black Death (also called Bubonic Plague) was caused by bacteria transmitted by rodents, not a virus like COVID-19.
  • COVID-19’s symptoms vary, and are not as dangerous as other pandemics like Ebola.

The history of pandemics goes back thousands of years, with the first epidemics of smallpox, influenza, and malaria appearing approximately 10,000 years ago. The earliest recorded pandemic occurred in Greece around 430 B.C., after spreading from Libya, Ethiopia, and Egypt. Its symptoms included lesions, red skin, a bloody tongue and throat, thirst, and fever. It could have been typhoid, and it affected as many as two-thirds of the population. The Antonine Plague is an unknown disease that spread to Rome around 165 A.D. It is estimated that five million people eventually died from it.

Thinking about these and more recent pandemics, understanding how they differ is one way of working towards a cure. Here are ten ways that COVID-19 differs from past ones.

10. Mortality Rates

Cholera can kill 50% of those infected with the virus. Image credit: phys.org

There were seven cholera pandemics, and the first one happened in 1817. The main way that cholera differs from the coronavirus is its swift onset and high mortality rate. Without treatment, cholera can kill 50% of those infected, and death happens within hours after infection. Cholera is also a bacteria rather than a virus, with the most common symptom being diarrhea.

9. Ages

The 1918 flu targeted children under five and adults between the ages of twenty and forty. Image credit: www.history.com

Adults ages 65 and up are a high-risk population for COVID-19, but the 1918 flu targeted children under five and adults between twenty and forty. It is theorized that older adults living in this time period may have had an immunity to a previous disease, such as the 1889-1890 flu. Some scientists also think that younger people have more vigorous immune responses, which could have caused severe lung symptoms and excess fluid in the lungs.

8. World War

WWI increased the spread of the Spanish flu. Image credit: britannica.com

During the 1918 flu, the world was in the throes of World War I. Consequently, large numbers of people were traveling the globe, which increased the spread.

7. Bacteria, Not a Virus

The Bubonic Plague halved Europe's population. Image credit: npr.org

Like Cholera, the Black Death (also called Bubonic Plague) was caused by bacteria transmitted by rodents, not a virus like COVID-19. Rodents that were carrying fleas infested with the bacteria spread the plague when biting humans. It broke out in Europe, peaking from 1347 to 1351. It is estimated that it caused between 75 and 200 million fatalities, possibly half of the entire continent.

6. Means of Transmission

COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets, but other pandemics were caused by viruses that spread other ways. unsplash.com/@unitednations

The novel coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, and pandemics like Black Death and Cholera got to humans through different ways. As described, Black Death was spread from rats; cholera is transmitted by eating food or drinking water that is contaminated with cholera bacteria. This can come through an infected person’s feces that gets into food and water. HIV is caused by a virus, but is not spread through sneezes and coughs; it is transmitted through bodily fluids and needle or syringe use.

5. Speed of Transmission

COVID-19 spreads faster than influenza. Image credit: Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

Influenza can spread even faster than COVID-19, with a three-day serial interval (duration of time between symptom onset in one case and symptom onset in a secondary, infected case) compared to COVID-19’s five to six days. Therefore, influenza may spread faster.

4. Severity of Symptoms

Ebola is far more deadly than COVID-19 Photo by CDC on Unsplash

COVID-19’s symptoms vary, and are not as dangerous as other pandemics like Ebola. The latter is extremely deadly, and can kill up to half of those infected. A severe onset of weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, aches, pains, and fever allows health officials to quickly identify those who fall victim to Ebola.

3. The U.S. was Spared

COVID-19 has affected the US more than past pandemics. Photo by Paulo Silva on Unsplash

The Sixth Cholera Pandemic took place from 1910 to 1911 in India, killing over 800,000 people. It also spread to Eastern Europe, Russia, North Africa, and the Middle East. American health authorities had learned from past cholera epidemics, and quickly isolated those infected. In the end, there were only 11 deaths in the United States.

2. No Social Distancing

Social distancing was not commonplace during past pandemics. Photo by Mateusz Glogowski on Unsplash

The 1918 pandemic spread rapidly during wartime, and the 1957-58 Avian Flu also spread because there was no such thing as social distancing. Back then, this was not a public health policy. Interestingly, at a 1957 Washington, D.C. Association of State and Territorial Health Officers meeting, it was stated that there was “no practical advantage in the closing of schools or the curtailment of public gatherings as it relates to the spread of this disease."

1. Social Media

COVID-19 has a caused a pandemic of misinformation via social media. Image credit: androidauthority.net

Although social media is helpful for sharing useful information like proper social distancing measures, it has also caused a great deal of fear, misinformation, and panic around the world. Many believe that social media has made the pandemic worse, with so much information that people do not know what to believe. According to the Harvard Gazette, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres referred to it as a “pandemic of misinformation.” In fact, some information seems to be completely made up. The sheer volume of pandemic misinformation has created a dynamic that is taking attention away from accurate public information, which makes things harder for officials.

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