The Deadliest Epidemics Of The 20th Century

A hospital ward during the Spanish Flu.
A hospital ward during the Spanish Flu.

Health organizations across the world fear epidemics and pandemics. With the growing populations and overcroded urban areas, the potential of an epidemic to wipe out entire human populations becomes larger every day. The present century has already been plagued with severe epidemics and pandemics like the 2013 West African ebola virus epidemic, the 2010 Haitian cholera outbreak, and more. Health organizations like WHO are constantly striving to contain such outbreaks and also prevent them from happening. Lessons learn from the past make it easier to manage the infectious disease outbreaks of the present century. In this article we take a look at some of the worst epidemics/pandemics of the 20th century.

HIV/AIDS Pandemic

HIV/AIDS was the deadliest pandemic of the 20th century. AIDS, the disease resulting from HIV infection was first discovered in 1981. 30 million deaths had been recorded due to this disease during the first decade of the 21st century. It continues to plague thousands across the world even today. As of 2016, nearly 36.7 million individuals across the world are infected by the HIV. The global incidence of HIV infection was at its peak in 1997. According to estimates by Lancet, it was 3.3 million per year in that year. The global incidence, however, decreased significantly with the turn of the century. In 2005, it was 2.6 million per year. Unfortunately, little change was seen in the figure from 2005 to 2015. Sub-Saharan Africa is the worst affected region in the world. More than half of all global HIV cases are recorded here. Of all countries in the world, South Africa has the highest population of HIV infected individuals at 5.9 million.

1918 Flu Pandemic/Spanish Flu

One of the world’s most deadly pandemics struck in 1918 and wiped out 3 to 5% of the world’s population. It was an influenza pandemic that involved the H1N1 influenza virus. Worldwide, 500 million suffered from the disease while nearly 50 to 100 million people lost their lives. The disease spread to near all corners of the globe including remote islands in the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. Interestingly, this pandemic killed predominantly healthy young individuals. Most other diseases have greater adverse effects on children, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals. Although the pandemic was named the ‘Spanish flu’ it was a misnomer. It neither originated in Spain nor did it kill more people in the country than in others. However, due to wartime censors, many countries like the UK, US, France put restrictions on the press to report the breakout in the initial stages. However, with no such restrictions in place, Spain’s media reported the pandemic at an early stage giving the false impression that the country was especially hard hit.

Asian Flu

For three years, from 1956 to 1958, a deadly pandemic raged across the world and claimed millions of lives. Termed the Asian flu pandemic, the outbreak was caused by the influenza A virus and was first identified in Guizhou, China, in 1956. Despite the name, the disease was not restricted to Asia but also spread to other parts of the world and killed 69,800 people in the US. As per various sources, one to four million people died due to this disease.

The 1968 Flu Pandemic

Another flu pandemic ravaged the world and killed about one million people within a short span of time from 1968 to 1969. The flu was caused by the H3N2 strain of the influenza A virus. The pandemic is often referred to as the Hong Kong flu since it originated in Hong Kong. The first record of the outbreak was reported on July 13, 1968. Soon, the disease spread to Singapore and Vietnam and by September, it had reached India, Australia, and even Europe. Vietnam War troops returning to the US brought the disease with them to the country. However, it was under control in the country. Other parts of the world were also not spared from this disease. About 15% of the population of Hong Kong suffered from the disease. Better medical facilities and the availability of antibiotics were some of the factors that helped restrain the pandemic from causing a greater number of deaths.

The Sixth Cholera Pandemic

Over 800,000 people lost their lives during a major cholera outbreak that originated in India in 1899. The disease then spread to the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Africa. It continued into the 20th century and ended in 1923. The cholera is first believed to have struck at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar.

1974 Smallpox Epidemic In India

One of the worst smallpox epidemics of the 20th century struck India in 1974. More than 15,000 died from smallpox between January and May of the same year. Many more were left maimed for life. Attempts were made to contain the disease and prevent its further spread. The last case of smallpox in the country was recorded on May 24, 1975. Five years later, the disease was completely eradicated from the world.


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