Nowadays, we live in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world.
People and the diseases they bring can now fly to every city on the planet in a matter of hours thanks to international Jet travel.
And once a virus has taken hold, it only takes one sneeze to spread the infection across the neighbourhood. When humans roamed the wild Savannas as hunter-gatherers, we were never in one place for long enough, and settlements were too small to support the transmission of infectious microbes.
People started living side by side with animals after the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and the arrival of permanent settlements in the Middle East, encouraging the spread of bacteria and viruses between cattle and humans.
Pandemics and epidemics come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, for example, throwing thousands of people into makeshift refugee camps.
Within weeks, the camps had become breeding grounds for cholera, a bacteria transmitted by polluted water that quickly spread throughout the world, sparking a nationwide outbreak. Viruses such as measles, influenza, and HIV, however, are the most common cause of epidemics.
We call them pandemics as they spread globally. Pandemics have occurred throughout history; some have left marks on the tissue and bone of their victims, while others have left evidence in the form of preserved DNA.
For example, DNA from the bacteria that transmits tuberculosis has been recovered from the remains of ancient Egyptian mummies.
In 2011, scientists investigating a plague pit in London were able to reconstruct the genome of the bacterium that caused the 14th-century Black Death, Yersinia pestis.
The Plague is thought to have started in China around 1340 and spread west along the Silk Road, a caravan route that runs from Mongolia to Crimea.
The plague arrived in the Mediterranean in 1347, and by 1400, it had killed over 34 million Europeans, earning it the moniker “Great Mortality.” Later scholars coined the term “Black Death.” However, influenza is by far the deadliest pandemic killer.
Between the Southern and Northern Hemispheres, flu is actively spreading. Seasonal Flues strike North America and Europe every autumn and winter.
These infections are normally mild since the majority of children and adults have been exposed to the virus in previous seasons. The virus, however, undergoes a drastic mutation every 20 to 40 years or so.
This usually happens when a wild flu virus that is circulating in ducks and farm poultry crosses paths with a pig virus and exchanges genes. Antigenic change is a natural phenomenon that has existed in human history. In 1580, the first pandemic was reported.
At least six more pandemics occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries. None may compare to the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 in terms of mortality. The first signs of the pandemic were chills, headaches, and fever among American troops stationed in northern France in the spring.
Soldiers began collapsing on parade at a US Army barracks near Boston the following September, forcing their evacuation to the camp infirmary.
As a surgeon there recalled, they had mahogany stains over their cheek bones two hours after admission, and a few hours later you could see the Cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over their heads.
It’ll just be a few hours until they die, and then it’ll only be a search for oxygen before they pass out. Sick men haemorrhaged blood from their noses on the S.S. Leviathan, a massive American transporter in route to Bordeaux, making the decks between their bunks slippery with bodily fluids.
Meanwhile, British soldiers on furlough in northern France spread the flu to Dover and other Channel ports, from where it was transported to London by rail.
An estimated 675,000 Americans and 230,000 Britons had died by the time the pandemic ended in April 1919. In India alone, 10 million people were killed, with a total death toll of 50 million people worldwide. But that was back in the day.
Viruses can now be transported to every nation on the planet in a fraction of the time it took in 1918.
A Chinese doctor, for example, arrived at the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong in February 2003 feeling ill.
He was carrying a new animal-origin virus known as SARS, which stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
Sixteen other guests were infected within 24 hours of checking into Room 913, and five of them boarded planes to overseas destinations, spreading the virus to Vietnam, Singapore, and Canada over the next few days.
Flights between Hong Kong, Toronto, and other foreign cities were quickly grounded, and a pandemic was avoided thanks to other emergency measures. SARS had affected 29 countries and killed over 1,000 people by the time the epidemic was over four months later.
Despite the fact that the virus was quickly contained, nothing could be done about the disturbing news stories broadcast on cable news networks and the Internet.
Tourism in Hong Kong and other affected cities came to a halt as bloggers contributed to the hysteria by spreading baseless conspiracy theories, costing companies more than ten billion dollars.
One business, on the other hand, did exceptionally well. Above all, SARS served as a reminder that pandemics have always connoted fear.
If history tells us something, it’s that, while pandemics can begin tiny, their consequences can be just as devastating as wars and natural disasters.
The difference today is that science has given us the opportunity to predict pandemics early on and take steps to minimise their effects before they spread too far.