What the Pandemics of History Can Teach
As the Global Report for Research on Infectious Diseases of Poverty by the World Health Organization (WHO) explained, “Poverty creates conditions that [favor] the spread of infectious diseases and prevents affected populations from obtaining adequate access to prevention and care. Ultimately, these diseases…disproportionately affect people living in poor or [marginalized] communities.” This is what the pandemics of history can teach all countries.
While the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide has dropped over the last 20 years, research has suggested that poverty will grow for the first time since 1999 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the many lives this disease has affected, hope exists that the world will be able to overcome this global setback.
A Quick Lesson in Terminology
In simple terms, infectious disease epidemiology is the study of the spread and burden of communicable diseases over time and, to understand pandemics of history, it is important to first know a few epidemiologic terms. The COVID-19 pandemic is an epidemic that has spread across national and continental borders. An epidemic marks a particularly sudden increase in the spread of a specific disease. Diseases are endemic when present within a population at steady levels.
The notable scientific and technological advancements that occur through the lessons of diseases past and present are of course vital to global health. However, a look through these histories can also provide context and even comfort in the face of COVID-19. Here are three examples of defeated plagues from history.
3 Defeated Pandemics of History
- The Black Plague: The Black Plague caused great destruction in Asia and Europe during the mid-1300s. It is a prime example of what the pandemics of history can teach. The movement of sailors from port to port was a significant influence on the spread of the bubonic plague—rats that were aboard ships, as well as sailors themselves, transmitted the disease, leading port officials to eventually restrict passengers from leaving ships for 30-40 days. This practice, known as quarantine, has of course played an important role in mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
- The Spanish Flu: Despite the comparisons between the 1918 influenza pandemic and COVID-19, there remain key differences. The Spanish flu primarily struck younger people who were otherwise healthy. Meanwhile, COVID-19 deaths have disproportionately included older populations. Many countries put public health measures in place in 1918. They bear an obvious resemblance to those deployed against COVID-19. Many can also be thankful for the many scientific and technological innovations of the last 100 years. The COVID-19 pandemic will hopefully end before killing 50 million people.
- Smallpox: Smallpox waxed and waned in many areas of the world as early as the 4th century and WHO eradicated it in 1980. Nonetheless, from the years of tragedy and struggle came lessons and innovations serving the world today. For perspective, over a millennium passed between the first cases of smallpox and Edward Jenner’s scientific discovery of a smallpox vaccine, and it was nearly another two centuries before the disease underwent eradication.
Light at the End of the COVID-19 Tunnel
Public health officials have continued to utilize the lessons of the past. What the pandemics of history can teach has informed the public health measures and campaigns of today.
– Amy Perkins