5 pandemics from recent history – and what happened

Covid-19 has been officially declared a pandemic – a new disease with worldwide spread. Pandemics are not common, but the last one occurred barely more than a decade ago.

Here are five examples of pandemics from recent history, and what happened to them…

1. Swine Flu

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(iStock/PA)</figcaption>
(iStock/PA)

Though Zika and Ebola both could have been, Covid-19 is the first WHO-sanctioned pandemic since the swine flu outbreak in 2009.

The H1N1 virus quickly spread across the globe, causing alarm among civilians and medical professionals alike, and patient zero was traced a small town in Veracruz, Mexico. A Frankenstein’s monster of pig, bird and human illnesses, the new strain had a mercifully low fatality rate, and after a little over a year the WHO declared the pandemic over.

It did not cause nearly as much disruption as Covid-19, but did kill up to 575,000 people.

2. HIV/Aids

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(iStock/PA)</figcaption>
(iStock/PA)

Pandemics have no set end point, and though coronavirus is naturally nicking all the headlines, one of the world’s most dangerous pandemics is still raging four decades on.

Thought to have developed from a chimpanzee virus in the 1920s, Aids gained particular notoriety when spreading through America in the 1980s, claiming the lives of A-listers like Rock Hudson and Freddie Mercury.

In 2018, WHO figures stated that 37.9 million people were still living with HIV, while 770,000 had died in that year alone. The medical community is as close as it has ever been to eradicating Aids, and many people live long lives on HIV medication, but there is still no cure.

3. Asian Flu

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(iStock/PA)</figcaption>
(iStock/PA)

First identified in China in February 1957, the aptly-named ‘Asian Flu’ had spread to the United States by June, and by mid-November had swept Europe. It claimed between one and two million lives, but also marked a milestone for medical science. The virus was swiftly identified, and an effective vaccine was developed within the year.

The celebrations were short-lived, as just a decade later a new sub-type emerged, probably from the remnants of the last one. The marginally more virulent ‘Hong Kong Flu’ piggybacked on American soldiers returning home from Vietnam, and killed between one and four million people worldwide. A vaccine was developed, but only after the virus had largely run its course.

4. Cholera

Most people consider cholera an old-timey disease, but this water-born illness fuelled seven pandemic waves and is still killing today.

The first pandemic emerged in India in 1817, stemming from a bag of contaminated rice, and quickly spread across Asia from the islands of Indonesia to the shores of the Persian Gulf. In 1826 a second wave went one step further, reaching London and then the Americas in 1832. In an early version of fake news, questionable press coverage led to a belief that doctors were deliberately killing patients for study, sparking the so-called “Cholera Riots” in Liverpool.

The third pandemic was the worst to date, claiming a million lives in Russia alone, while pandemics four, five and six followed with barely a break. The seventh pandemic began in Indonesia in 1961. Some observers claim it ended in the mid-Seventies. Others say it’s still going on.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>(iStock/PA)</figcaption>
(iStock/PA)

5. Spanish Flu

You’re probably sensing a pattern here – the always-mutating influenza is extremely pandemic-prone – and the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 showcased the virus at its very worst. Unusual in targeting 20 to 40-year-olds in the prime of life, the malady infected about a third of the global population at the time, hot on the heels of the horrors of the First World War.

Many historians say the outbreak probably began in China, but was first reported by the press in Spain. The US and France knew about the illness – code-named ‘disease XI’ – but under wartime protocols it was initially kept quiet.

The First World War killed around 40 million people. Estimates vary, but Spanish Flu could have killed double that.