Special Report

20 Worst Epidemics and Pandemics in History

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Cholera pandemic
> Disease: Cholera
> Location: Worldwide
> Duration: 1846-1860
> Approx. number of deaths: Unknown worldwide (1 million in Russia)

The third and most deadly major cholera pandemic started in India and spread throughout Eurasia into Africa and North America. It caused one of the highest death tolls of any 19th century pandemic, with over 1 million people dying in Russia alone. Cholera is contracted by ingesting the bacterium Vibrio cholerae through contaminated food or water, and causes profuse diarrhea.

Source: internetarchivebookimages / Flickr

Plague pandemic
> Disease: Bubonic plague
> Location: Worldwide
> Duration: 1855-1959
> Approx. number of deaths: 15 million

The third bubonic plague pandemic (there were also two previous bubonic plague epidemics) started in China and spread throughout the world, causing 10 million deaths in India alone. In 1894, scientists in Hong Kong identified the bacterium responsible, and in 1897 a vaccine was developed and utilized in India.

Source: Courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine

“Russian flu” pandemic
> Disease: Influenza
> Location: Worldwide
> Duration: 1889-1890
> Approx. number of deaths: 1 million

Also called the Asiatic flu, this pandemic quickly spread around the world as a result of modernized travel by railway and other means. It proliferated across the Northern Hemisphere in four months. Some virologists speculate that the offending pathogen may have been a strain of coronavirus.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Cholera pandemic
> Disease: Cholera
> Location: Asia, Africa, Europe
> Duration: 1899-1923
> Approx. number of deaths: Unknown worldwide (800,000 in India)

This outbreak started in India and spread to other locales in Asia, Russia, Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Sanitation improvements in Western Europe prevented it from taking hold there, but 500,000 people died in Russia, as well as 200,000 in the Philippines and 800,000 in India.

Source: statelibraryofnsw / Flickr

“Spanish flu” pandemic
> Disease: Influenza
> Location: Worldwide
> Duration: 1918-1920
> Approx. number of deaths: 50 million

This pandemic, caused by the H1N1 virus, infected 500 million people and killed an estimated 50 million. It first appeared at an army base in the United States, then spread to Europe with American soldiers deployed to fight in WWI. Eventually circling the globe, it occurred in distinct waves, with the deadliest being the second wave in the fall and winter of 1918.