Epidemics did not wait for globalization or the coronavirus crisis to spread across the globe. Since the Antiquity, diseases have decimated entire populations in the space of a few months or even a few days, triggering the terror of the inhabitants facing an unknown evil.
A globalized version of the epidemic, the pandemic is characterized by a rapid spread and a high mortality rate. Transmitted by viruses or bacteria unknown at the time, these pandemics have killed millions of people and marked the history of humanity.
The plague of Athens (430 to 426 BC)
The first documented pandemic in history, the plague of Athens was in fact probably due to a thyphoid fever.
Described by the historian Thucydides, who was himself affected by the disease, the illness manifested itself through intense fevers, diarrhea, rashes and convulsions. Coming from Ethiopia, it then strikes Egypt and Libya, then arrives in Athens at the time of the siege of Sparta, during the Peloponnesian war.
It is estimated that a third of the city, or 200,000 inhabitants, will perish during this epidemic which will mark the beginning of the decline of Athens.
The Antonine plague (165-166)
Once again, this pandemic was not due to the plague but to smallpox. It was named after the Antonine dynasty, from which Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled the Roman Empire at the time, descended.
The pandemic started at the end of 165 in Mesopotamia, during the war against the Parthians and reached Rome in less than a year.
According to estimates, it caused 10 million deaths between 166 and 189, considerably weakening the Roman population. Smallpox, caused by a virus and characterized by reddish scabs, diarrhea and vomiting, was declared eradicated in 1980.
The Black Death (1347-1352)
After having raged in China, the Black Death pandemic arrived in 1346 in Central Asia, among the Mongol troops besieging the port of Caffa, on the Black Sea, held by Genoese merchants.
The disease, manifested by horrible buboes, then spread to North Africa and then to Italy and France, where it arrived in the port of Marseille via Genoese ships.
It is estimated that this epidemic, also known as “the great plague”, caused between 25 and 40 million deaths in Europe, that is to say between a third and a half of its population at the time.
The Spanish flu (1918-1919)
Caused by a particularly virulent type A H1N1 virus, the Spanish flu was actually of Asian origin. It arrived in the United States, then crossed the Atlantic by soldiers who came to help France.
It was called Spanish flu because the country, not subject to censorship and war, reported the first alarming news. When it died out in April 1919, the toll was horrific.
The Spanish flu killed 20 to 30 million people in Europe and up to 50 million worldwide, sparing virtually no region of the globe. It is estimated that one third of the world’s pollution was infected.
Endemic for several centuries in the Ganges delta in India, cholera reached Russia in 1930, then Poland and Berlin. It arrived in France in March 1832 via the port of Calais, then reached Paris.
Cholera (the cause of which was not known at the time, the bacterium Vibrio cholerae) caused rapid dehydration, sometimes leading to death within a few hours.
The epidemic caused nearly 100,000 deaths in less than six months in France, including 20,000 in Paris. It then reached Quebec via Irish immigrants, where it also caused havoc.
Asian flu (1956-1957)
Linked to the H2N2 influenza virus, the 1956 influenza was the second most deadly influenza pandemic after the 1918 pandemic.
It caused two to three million deaths worldwide, including 100,000 in France, 20 times more than a classic seasonal flu. Starting in China (hence its name), the virus spread to Hong Kong, Singapore and Borneo, then to Australia and North America before striking Europe and Africa.
A few years later, it mutated into H3N2 and caused a new pandemic in 1968-1969, nicknamed “Hong Kong flu”. This pandemic marked the beginning of the first effective influenza vaccines.
Originating in Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo), the AIDS virus came to light in 1981 when the Atlanta Epidemiology Agency in the United States alerted to unusual cases of pneumocystis (a rare pneumonia found in immuno-compromised patients).
HIV was not identified until two years later, in 1983, by a team of researchers at the Pasteur Institute led by Luc Montagnier. At the height of the epidemic, in the 2000s, two million people died each year from the virus. Today, 36.9 million patients are living with HIV. but antiretroviral treatments have considerably reduced mortality.