Plagues of the Past

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Amelia Payne, Staff Writer

As the world is living through a pandemic, it is important to note that this is not the only one the world has faced. Inventions and innovations of the past have made it possible that the spread of the coronavirus is not as widespread as it could be, and informing the public about past pandemics can help aid in the understanding of the one the world is facing right now.

The Black Death or the plague is probably the most well-known pandemic to exist in history. The first outbreak on a disastrous scale was in the mid-1300s, where marine ships carried the disease to large ports and cities and spread the plague all across Europe. Rats and fleas are thought to be the source of this plague. The plague was so terrifyingly contagious, anyone who came into contact with anyone would be deathly sick the next morning. It is estimated that the Black Plague killed 25 million people across Asia and Europe, one-third of Europe’s population. There wasn’t a vaccine or even thoughts of a vaccine until Alexandre Yersin discovered one in 1895 when experimenting with immunity to Y. pestis bacteria. Yersinia pestis is the bacteria that caused the plague. It is airborne and can spread to rats, fleas, and many other animals. Back in the 1300s, doctors were painfully inexperienced and didn’t have anything remotely near the technology we have today. Cures ranged from bloodletting, bathing in vinegar, to boil-lancing, which were all unsanitary and didn’t help at all. This plague is thought to be the intention of quarantine. The “people still had no scientific understanding of contagion,” says

Mockaitis, “but they knew that it had something to do with proximity. That’s why forward-thinking officials in Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa decided to keep newly arrived sailors in isolation until they could prove they weren’t sick”.

The Spanish flu or the 1918 flu is considered the most devastating pandemic in recent history. It entered the world in three waves before its devastating impact could be subdued. The virus is considered the deadliest flu, and for good reason. “It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States” ( This virus was an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. The disease spread worldwide during 1918-1919, but still cannot be traced back to a specific country or person. In Philadelphia alone, cold storage plants were used as makeshift morgues as over 500 corpses awaited burial. A manufacturer of trolley cars donates 200 packing crates to use as coffins for the growing number of casualties. A vaccine, created by Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis, would only come around 20 years later and would be distributed to soldiers in WWII to prevent the events that happened in WWI regarding the Spanish flu. Masks, self-quarantine, and limited sneezing/coughing in public were established during this time. The US government ordered those with the virus to stay home, at the same time rushed to help those with the virus, limited to non-pharmaceutical cures because the technology just wasn’t advanced enough to figure out a cure until years later.

Believed to have taken root as early as December 2019, Covid 19 hit a high in March 2020 and forced countries around the world to shut down. Different countries handled it differently, many countries shut down while others were optimistic about the severity of it. Some countries had the supplies to keep cases under control, others did not have access to proper care and were greatly affected. While China has kept most of the virus’ origins secret, the origins of Covid 19 are believed to be rooted in bats. How this spread from bats to humans is still being investigated. Just in the US, cases have reached around 14,000,000, and deaths have hit around 281,000 ( Worldwide, though, there have been around 68,000,000 cases and approximately 1,000,000 deaths so far ( Scientists in the US, at this moment in time, believe that they have a vaccine that will stop the spread of covid. The vaccine, at least in the US, could very well be accessible to the public in early 2021, as the screening processes and testing have been finished in a small amount of time. With world leaders, governments, and top scientists working together on how to combat this virus, this response is of record speed. Many other vaccines have taken years to create while this new vaccine took less than a year. Hopefully with new technology and information from the creation of this vaccine will further speed up the process in the future. As well, distribution of supplies and country shutdown might be faster as the government and other agencies recognize past flaws and improve on them.