7 things you didn’t know about: pandemics

Image: Global Health Security Index

We’re going through one right now, but what do you actually know about the world’s greatest historical pandemics?

Worldwide outbreaks change the face of society seemingly overnight, and have been responsible for some of the most atrocious losses of human life.

On the other hand, they have also occasioned great bravery, selflessness, and empathy, as well as motivating scientific discovery and medical breakthroughs.

1. The first recorded pandemic began in 450 BC

The “Plague of Athens” is the first pandemic to feature in the annals of human history. This scourge broke out during the Peloponnesian War, an ancient Greek conflict between the states of Athens and Sparta.

The historian Thucydides chronicled almost 30 years of this monumental clash; and his record includes an account of a plague that killed more people than the actual war, rapidly decimating about a third of the Athenian population.

In 2005, Dr Manolis Papagrigorakis conducted a DNA analysis of dental remains, which were recovered from an ancient Greek burial site. The results indicated that this pandemic was caused by an outbreak of typhoid fever.

2. A pandemic and an epidemic are not the same thing

Even medical experts sometimes use these terms interchangeably, but there is a distinction between pandemics and epidemics.

An epidemic is a disease that affects a large percentage of people within a population, a community, or an area.

A pandemic is a disease that affects people across countries or continents. In other words, a pandemic is an epidemic, gone global. The moment it breached Chinese borders, Covid-19 became a pandemic.

3. The influenza pandemic between 50-million and 100-million people

The 1918 pandemic, often called the “Spanish flu,” did not actually originate in Spain. But because World War 1 was in full swing when the outbreak began, countries such as Germany and France kept their outbreaks under wraps, while neutral Spain was transparent about its losses.

Often believed to be the worst pandemic in human history, the 1918 flu was especially terrible because it killed young, healthy people as well as infants and the elderly.

4. The first “lockdown” was possibly in 1665

The Black Plague — also known as the Black Death — is believed to have wiped out half of Europe at one stage.  This malady, which is infamous for causing painful swelling to erupt from sufferer’s lymph nodes, used to recur at 10 to 20-year intervals.

The English village of Eyam responded to a local outbreak in 1665 by quarantining itself for over a year. This act of self-sacrifice saved thousands of lives, as it prevented the spread of the plague to neighbouring villages.

5. Shakespeare’s only son was a casualty of the Black Plague

William Shakespeare, the most quoted author in the English idiom, had twins Judith and Hamnet with his wife Anne in 1585.

In 1596, at the age of 11, Hamnet seems to have contracted the bubonic plague and passed away.

It is unclear whether or not there is a connection between Hamnet Shakespeare and Hamlet, the play, which was composed around 1599.

6. Queen Victoria was behind a measles pandemic

Shortly after the island of Fiji ceded to the British Empire in 1874, a group of Queen Victoria’s royal emissaries payed a visit to Australia during an outbreak of measles.

On their return to Fiji, this group spread the disease, first to tribal and police authorities, and then to to the general population.

Entire villages were eliminated, and about 40 000 people — a third of Fiji’s whole population — died.

 7. 5G mobile networks are not responsible for the spread of Covid-19?

A strange rumour has been doing the rounds recently: that the coronavirus pandemic currently afflicting most of the world has been spread through 5G mobile networks and is transmitted through radio waves.

Happily — and unsurprisingly — this is completely fictitious. Covid-19 is spread through respiratory droplets, which are emitted when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or speaks.

Contaminated surfaces can also transmit the disease: if a person comes into contact with the surface and then touches their nose, mouth, or eyes.