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Outbreaks: Pandemics and Epidemics Throughout History and the Diseases that Caused Them

by Alexandra Fuhs

*Graphic Image Warning*

A pandemic is a disease that affects the global population and spreads in excess of how a disease typically may. Pandemics are usually caused by new infectious bacteria or viruses and spread quickly while affecting a large portion of the population. This varies from an epidemic in that an epidemic affects a larger number of people in a certain region. While everyone is familiar with the current COVID-19 pandemic, there have been other pandemics and epidemics throughout history that significantly affected mankind (Note: this article is not inclusive of every major pandemic/epidemic, it just focuses on three).

Smallpox Epidemic

Smallpox is a disease caused by the variola virus. Fatal in 30% of cases, early symptoms include high fever and fatigue before a characteristic rash is produced. The spots left from the rash fill with fluid and crust over, leaving scars on many survivors. One of the first control methods was known as variolation, where people who had not yet caught the virus were exposed to material from the pustules of those with the disease. They developed the symptoms, though fewer died than if they had otherwise caught it.

Smallpox spread around the world from the 1600s to the 1800s, killing nearly 400,000 per year in Europe by the end of the eighteenth century. In 1796, English doctor Edward Jenner developed a vaccine using cowpox, a related disease. He exposed people to smallpox after rubbing material from cowpox pustules onto them and found that they were mostly resistant to smallpox. After a period of slow acceptance, Jenner’s approach was widely adopted. Variations have been made to the vaccine since then, but smallpox was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1980 through a successful global vaccination campaign.

The Flu Pandemic of 1918

The flu pandemic of 1918 was the most severe in recent history, infecting over 500 million people. It was caused by an H1N1 (swine flu) virus and spread worldwide from 1918-1919. When the disease began to spread, doctors were unable to discover why it was striking so quickly. The first wave of the flu occurred in the spring of 1918 and was generally mild; those who were sick experienced typical flu symptoms and recovered within days. However, a second wave appeared later in the year. Victims of this wave died within hours or days of developing symptoms as their skin turned blue and their lungs filled with fluid, causing them to suffocate.

In just one year, the average life expectancy in America plummeted by 12 years.

The pandemic eventually ended due to the number of people exposed, creating herd immunity — where a large portion of the population is immune to a certain disease, making it difficult for the virus or bacteria to mutate and spread. A flu vaccine was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1945, but this was unfortunately too late as an estimated 50 million people died in this crushing pandemic.

Ebola Virus Epidemic

Ebola is a rare and deadly disease in humans and primates and is most commonly found in the sub-Saharan Africa region. The virus spreads to humans through direct contact with the blood, body fluids, and tissues of infected beings. There is an incubation period between the time when someone catches Ebola and when they start showing symptoms; during this period they are unable to transmit it. Symptoms include severe headaches and joint pain, weakness, unexpected hemorrhaging and bleeding, and red eyes. The average fatality rate is 50% and it’s considered one of the deadliest diseases.

Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and its origins are unknown. Since then, there have been at least 30 outbreaks across Africa, but the most severe was the West Africa epidemic during 2013-2016. The regions affected were Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia with more than 10,000 lives lost.

The initial case was reported to be a toddler in a Guinean village, and the disease soon spread to Conakry, Guinea’s capital city. A combination of weak public health systems and poor medical infrastructure led to the rapid spread of the virus, and multiple cases popped up in the U.S., Spain, and the United Kingdom. The breadth of this severe outbreak can be attributed to the virus circulation through urban areas and increased travel across borders. Engaging local leaders in virus prevention programs as well as global policy implementations eventually contained the spread, with the three main affected countries declaring themselves Ebola-free by 2016. The epidemic ended with over 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths.

Epidemics and pandemics have occurred since large-scale civilizations began forming in human history. While it is scary to live through a world health crisis like the current COVID-19 pandemic, modern medicine is improving every day. As vaccine technology continues to develop and we learn more about the diseases behind these global events, we are better able to protect ourselves and work to prevent future catastrophes.

We hope you enjoyed reading this informative article on different pandemics and epidemics through history! We felt that it was important for us to highlight various other pandemics throughout history that are similar to the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently in. If you liked this article, go read our article on Cinemedicine, linked here. This article discusses how medical schools are using new methods, such as cinema and plays, to teach the topics of patient interaction better. A must read for aspiring healthcare professionals!

If you are interested in becoming a writer or have any questions/comments about the Writing Committee, please feel free to comment down below, or email

Happy Reading,

Alexandra and the Writing Committee :)


  1. CDC. “History of Smallpox”. Smallpox, 20 February 2021.

  1. LiveScience. “Smallpox: The World’s First Eradicated Disease”. Alina Bradford, 23 April 2019.

  1. Info Please. “Epidemics of the Past: Smallpox”. Diseases, David Perlin and Ann Cohen, 2002.

  1. CDC. “1918 Pandemic (H1N1 Virus)”. Past Pandemics, 20 March 2019.

  1. CDC. “Ebola (Ebola Virus Disease”)

  1. CDC. “2014-2016 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa”. Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers, 8 March 2019.

  1. Pan American Health Organization. “Ebola Virus Disease”.

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