Education, Infectious Diseases

A Brief History of Infectious Diseases

Author Kimberly Hazel , 09-Sep-2022

Recently, we faced a pandemic unlike any other in recent history. The world came together to fight a common enemy: the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. However, this is not humankind’s first face-off with a deadly infectious disease. From the black death to the Spanish flu, mankind has faced many pandemics throughout history. These outbreaks have often been caused by new and virulent strains of existing diseases, resulting in widespread panic and death.


Some historians believe infectious diseases may have played a role in the collapse of civilizations such as the Roman Empire and the Khmer Empire. While we have made great strides in understanding and treating infectious diseases, they remain a significant threat to public health. 


Infectious diseases are caused by pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites. These pathogens can be spread through contact with contaminated surfaces, food, water, or bodily fluids. People can also contract infectious diseases through contact with infected animals or insect bites. The symptoms of an infectious disease depend on the type of pathogen causing the infection. However, common symptoms include fever, chills, fatigue, and muscle aches. 


One of the earliest recorded infectious disease outbreaks occurred during the Antonine Plague of 165-180 AD. This plague is thought to have been caused by either smallpox or measles and killed an estimated five million people. The Antonine Plague was responsible for the death of Roman Emperor Lucius Verus and created economic instability and social unrest that contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. 



Let’s take a look at some other prominent plagues.

The Plague of Justinian


The first pandemic on our list is also one of the oldest. The Plague of Justinian was an outbreak that affected the Byzantine Empire from 541 to 542 AD. The disease, probably a form of bubonic plague, is thought to have originated in Egypt and spread through trade routes to Constantinople. The disease was probably caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, carried by fleas. 

The Byzantine Empire was quickly overwhelmed by the disease, which caused fever, vomiting, and painful swellings in the lymph nodes. As the death toll rose, city leaders imposed a strict quarantine, closing all ports and prohibiting travel in and out of the city. However, these measures failed to contain the outbreak, and the plague eventually spread throughout the empire. It is estimated that somewhere between 30% and 50% of the population, up to 50 million people, perished before the disease finally ran its course. It was even responsible for the death of Emperor Justinian himself. 


The Black Death


Next on our list is the Black Death, perhaps one of the most famous pandemics in history. This outbreak of bubonic plague occurred in Europe from 1346 to 1353 and killed an estimated 25 million people. That’s nearly one-third of Europe’s population at the time! 

It was also caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. While there is no vaccine for the Black Death, early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics can effectively prevent death. However, during these times, little was known about the causes of disease or how to treat it effectively. This led to one of the most devastating outbreaks in human history.

The Black Death had a profound impact on Europe, both socially and economically. It also ushered in a new era of medical science, as researchers began to study the disease to find a cure. 


The Plague in Modern Times


Plague is classified as a re-emerging infectious disease by the World Health Organization (WHO). Between 2010 and 2015, there were an estimated 3,248 cases of plague, with 584 fatalities worldwide. Most of those cases occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, and Peru. Despite its reputation as a medieval disease, the plague is still a threat in the modern world. Although it is now relatively rare, it still causes significant morbidity and mortality in epidemic settings. Consequently, it is important for people to be aware of the risks posed by this disease and how it can be prevented.



In 1494, the world was introduced to a new and deadly disease: syphilis. Often referred to as “the great pox,” syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum and is characterized by painful sores, fever, and eventual death. Other symptoms of syphilis include rashes and muscle aches. Left untreated, syphilis can lead to deformities, dementia, and death. 

The disease first appeared in Europe following the colonization of the Americas, and it quickly spread through the population. Over the next few centuries, syphilis would kill more than 50,000 people; however, thanks to advances in medicine, syphilis is now easily treatable with antibiotics. Despite this, the disease remains a serious global health concern, with approximately 12 million new cases occurring yearly.



Tuberculosis is an ancient disease that first appeared in humans thousands of years ago. It is believed to be one of the oldest diseases in existence. Tuberculosis, also known as TB, is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosiswhich is spread through the air when people cough or sneeze. 

The first recorded outbreaks of tuberculosis date back to c. 1500 AD, and the disease has claimed the lives of millions of people over the years. The most famous victim of tuberculosis was probably Queen Elizabeth I, who died of the disease in 1603. However, it was not until the 19th century that tuberculosis became a true pandemic. 

In the past few hundred years, tuberculosis has been controlled thanks to advances in medicine and public health. In 1815, a physician named Georges Cuvier first described the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, and in 1882, Robert Koch discovered that the bacteria could be transmitted from person to person. Fortunately, there are now effective treatments for tuberculosis that can help prevent the spread of this deadly disease.



The history of smallpox is a long and complicated one, full of false starts, dead ends, and blind alleys. It was one of the most feared diseases of the pre-modern era. The disease was so feared that entire civilizations had been known to collapse in the face of smallpox epidemics.

Smallpox is thought to have originated in Africa or Asia and then spread to Europe and the Americas through trade and travel. The first recorded outbreak occurred in China in the 13th century, and the disease quickly spread worldwide. 

The disease is spread through contact with infected people or objects. It can also be spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Smallpox is caused by the bacteria Variola major, and has some pretty gruesome symptoms like fever, severe body aches, and a distinctive rash that eventually leads to lesions and scabs. It often killed its victims, and those who survived were left with disfiguring scars. 

It was particularly devastating to native populations without immunity to the virus. Outbreaks continued throughout history, with devastating epidemics occurring every few years. In the 20th century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 300 million people. 

In the modern era, smallpox was eradicated through a massive global vaccination effort. The ambitious vaccination program was launched in the 1960s; the disease was considered eradicated from the human population in 1977.

Yellow Fever


In the late eighteenth century, a deadly disease called yellow fever began spreading through North America’s colonies. The disease, most commonly spread by mosquitoes, causes fever, vomiting, and jaundice and often results in death. In some cases, patients would also bleed from the nose and mouth.

For five years, from 1793 to 1798, yellow fever killed approximately 25,000 people in the colonies in what is now referred to as “The American Plague.” In 1798, Benjamin Rush, a leading physician in the colonies, proposed that yellow fever was caused by “miasma,” or bad air. This theory was eventually disproven, but it highlights the lack of understanding about the disease at the time.

The American Plague was finally controlled in the early nineteenth century through improved sanitation and mosquito control measures. Yellow fever continues to be a problem in many parts of the world today. Recently, disease outbreaks have been largely confined to Africa and South America. 

The Seven Cholera Pandemics


Cholera is a waterborne disease that has caused seven major pandemics over the past 200 years. Cholera is most commonly spread through contaminated water or food. Symptoms include severe watery diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. Treatment involves rehydration with fluids and electrolytes. Cholera can be prevented by improving water and sanitation facilities and providing clean water and proper sanitation facilities to people living in areas where the disease is endemic. 

The first, second, and third Cholera pandemics originated in India in 1817, 1829, and 1848 respectively. The disease spread to other parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. In particular, the second cholera pandemic killed over 100,000 people in England alone. The third cholera pandemic impacted Russia more than past pandemics and spread from there to the Americas. 

The fourth pandemic began in 1863 and killed over a million people worldwide. The fifth pandemic started in 1881 and caused even more death and destruction than the previous one. Over 12 million people died as a result of this pandemic. The sixth pandemic occurred in 1899 and affected several continents.

Lastly, the seventh and most recent pandemic started in 1961 and is still ongoing in some parts of the world. A large outbreak loosely associated with this pandemic occurred in 2010 and originated in Haiti. 

Influenza Pandemics


While the exact origins of the flu are unknown, it is clear that this virus has been giving humans a run for their money for centuries. The first recorded influenza pandemic occurred in 1510, and several outbreaks have occurred since then. 

The flu is notoriously difficult to contain, as it easily spreads through coughing and sneezing. What’s more, the flu virus is constantly changing, making it difficult for our immune systems to keep up. As a result, influenza pandemics can cause widespread illness. While these flu pandemics are often considered mild compared to other major diseases, they can occasionally be very deadly, as was the case with the 1918 Spanish flu.


The 1918 Flu Pandemic


It’s no secret that the Spanish Flu of 1918 was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. But what is less well known is where precisely this deadly disease originated. Contrary to its name, the Spanish Flu did not start in Spain, but because the Spanish government was one of the first to admit that a new and strange disease had emerged in their country, the flu gained the name Spanish Flu. So, where did it come from? 

There are three prevailing theories. The first is that it may have started in the United States among soldiers at Camp Funston, Kansas, at the beginning of March 1918, and the soldiers brought it with them across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. The second theory is that Spanish influenza may have originated in the Guangdong province in Southern China and that Chinese laborers brought it to the United States and later to Europe. The third view on the origin is that it may have started among soldiers on the western front during the winter of 1916 or 1917, independently of any diffusion of influenza from China or the United States. 

No matter which of these theories is true, one thing is certain: the Spanish Flu was a global tragedy that resulted in the deaths of 50 million people worldwide, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in history. This flu pandemic was particularly deadly because it mainly affected young, healthy adults rather than infants and the elderly, as is typical with other respiratory diseases.  Symptoms of the Spanish Flu included high fever, headaches, chest pain, and extreme fatigue. In many cases, patients would develop pneumonia and die within days. 

H1N1 or Swine Flu


2009 was a year to remember for many reasons. It was the year Avatar came out, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and Beyoncé released her game-changing album, I Am…Sasha Fierce. Oh, and there was a global financial crisis and a deadly flu pandemic. 

The H1N1 virus first surfaced in Mexico in March of 2009, and by June, it had spread to 74 countries worldwide. When the pandemic ended in August 2010, it had killed an estimated 284,000 people, making it the fifth deadliest flu pandemic in history. The CDC estimates that 60.8 million Americans were infected with the virus during the pandemic. While the H1N1 outbreak was eventually brought under control, it serves as a reminder of the devastation influenza can cause.




Ebola is a deadly virus that was first detected in 1976. Since then, it has caused 15,258 deaths and 29 epidemics. Ebola outbreaks typically receive a lot of media attention, and it is also one of the most commonly dramatized infectious diseases, as it is often portrayed in movies and TV. Many zombie movies use Ebola or Ebola-like diseases to create their zombie outbreak.

Ebola is a serious, deadly virus affecting humans and other primates. It is primarily found in Africa and often affects rural communities with weak healthcare systems. The first recorded outbreak occurred in 1976 in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The most recent outbreak began in 2018 and has killed 2,264 people.

The virus is spread through contact with bodily fluids, and symptoms include fever, diarrhea, and bleeding. There is no cure for Ebola, but early diagnosis and treatment can improve the chances of survival.  

The AIDS Pandemic


In 1981, a new disease began making headlines around the world. HIV/AIDS was first identified in the United States and quickly spread to other countries. The AIDS pandemic began in 1981 and continues to this day. It also shined a spotlight on inequality in healthcare access and the stigma surrounding sexually transmitted infections.

While HIV/AIDS has not been as deadly as some of the other epidemics on this list—it has killed an estimated 35 million people thus far—it has had a profound social and economic impact worldwide. For many years, little was known about the disease and its transmission. This led to a great deal of fear and misunderstanding. This is part of why the best way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS is through education and awareness.



Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses in humans. These viruses are typically spread through the air and can cause severe respiratory infections such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and even death. 

The most common coronavirus is the common cold, caused by the rhinovirus. This is the alpha coronavirus, which includes SARS-CoV, the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome. The SARS virus caused a global outbreak of respiratory illness in 2003.

Beta coronaviruses are the second most common type and include the viruses that cause Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and COVID-19.  The MERS virus has caused several outbreaks of respiratory illness in Saudi Arabia, while COVID became a global pandemic that has changed the modern era in many ways.




Chikungunya is a virus spread by mosquitoes and was first identified in 1952. The virus caused a pandemic in 2014 that resulted in over one million cases of illness. Although deaths from this virus are uncommon, it can cause severe joint pain and fever. Symptoms typically last for two to three weeks, but some people may experience joint pain for months or even years. The best way to protect yourself from the virus is to avoid mosquito bites.



If you’ve been paying attention to infectious disease news, you’ve probably heard of Zika, a type of flavivirus that has existed for decades. Zika was a minor nuisance for those decades, a mosquito-borne virus that caused a mild fever or rash. It wasn’t until 2015 that the mosquito-borne virus spread pandemically, likely due to a virus mutation.

The virus began to spread rapidly through the Americas, and by 2016 it had reached pandemic levels. It likely mutated to become more virulent, which is now more easily transmitted from person to person. The Zika virus is primarily spread through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. These mosquitoes are found in tropical and sub-tropical regions around the world. The virus can also be spread through sexual contact, blood transfusions, and mother-to-child during pregnancy or childbirth.

Infectious Diseases Are Here To Stay


These are just a few examples of some of history’s most famous (or infamous) pandemics. Infectious diseases have been a part of human history for centuries. Some outbreaks have been relatively minor, while others have resulted in widespread death and devastation.



Infectious diseases will continue to be a significant global health concern today and in the future. While much progress has been made in our understanding and treatment of these illnesses, there is still much work to be done. That is why we created GIDEON.

Kimberly Hazel

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