History’s Deadliest Plagues and Pandemics

5 minute read

By Christopher Brown

Scrolling through pictures of some of the worst plagues and pandemics of all time has been a humbling experience. Fortunately, you can learn everything about protection and prevention with a search online.

Today, we explore some of the deadliest plagues and pandemics of all time. The grim details are shocking, the death tolls are near incomprehensible, and the threat is far from over. Doctors continue to stave off potential threats to this day.

Black Death

Black Death is considered to be the first, and deadliest pandemic in human history. Over the course of five years (1346 – 1343), Black Death killed nearly a third of the population of Europe, or roughly 20 million people. At the time, very little was known about the deadly disease and those diagnosed with it were effectively cut off from those desperate to maintain their health. It dramatically altered the course of religious, political, and socio-economic history forever.


The deadly disease Cholera has been around for centuries and, unfortunately, is still around to this day. Researchers estimate 1.3 millions new cases of cholera per year, and that’s on the low end. Some estimate that cholera is responsible for nearly 143,000 deaths worldwide per year.

There have been seven instances of epidemic cholera spanning much of the 19th century, killing millions. It began in the Ganges and travelled the world by way of unsuspecting merchant ships and their crew.


Typhus or Typhus fever — not to be confused with Typhoid Fever — swept through Europe twice. Once in the 1600s and once again from 1914 to 1918, adding to the devastation of the First World War. It claimed as much as 10% of the German population at the time.

Typhus is an incredibly infectious disease that has no known vaccine. Symptoms include fever, headache, high temperature, and in some cases, a severe rash.

Yellow Fever

Back in the summer of 1973, Philadelphia was overtaken by a bout of a mosquito borne virus, forever dubbed Yellow Fever. The disease killed roughly 5,000 citizens that year and caused another 17,000 to flee the city for good.

This potentially lethal disease presents symptoms of fever, chills, loss of appetite, muscle pains, and can even lead to severe liver damage and jaundice. Though the disease hasn’t been eliminated yet – it still claims nearly 30,000 deaths per year in the third world – an effective vaccine does exist.


Back in the 1600s, smallpox wiped out an estimated 90 million Native Americans. That’s right. 90 million of them. It was brought over and spread by the settlers of the new world. European explorers had already built up an immunity to the disease. The Natives hadn’t developed a natural immunity to the disease and were totally caught off guard.

It’s a sad story, for sure. But thankfully a vaccine was developed, leading to the full-scale eradication of the disease in 1980.

Plague of Justinian

The Justinian Plague is considered the first recorded plague in human history, devastating the Byzantine Empire from 541 – 542. Now, the Justinian Plague happened a very, very long time ago, so the details are murky. As far as the death toll goes, conservative estimates hover around 100 million people, with some claiming that it wiped out nearly 10% of the entire population of the world at the time. Common symptoms of the Justinian plague included fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, and abdominal pain.


1916 marked the founding of BMW, Dublin’s Easter Rising, and the USA’s very first polio outbreak. A debilitating, infectious disease, polio is characterized by the weakening of an individual’s muscles. It began in 1916, but the epidemic reached its apex in 1952 with over 58,000 reported cases. Some of the most famously effected were Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, golf legend Jack Nicklaus, and the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Thankfully, a vaccine was developed in the early 1950’s by the legendary Polish doctor Albert B. Sabin and today, Polio exists only in the pages of history. And on the pages of Healthversed.com obviously.

Spanish Flu

The Spanish Flu was a particularly deadly variation of influenza (H1N1) that infected roughly 500 million people in 1918. It killed more people in just two years than the entirety of World War 1, which claimed roughly 20 to 40 million people.

The Spanish Flu came on like the common cold, but soon spread killing mostly people between the ages of 20 and 40 years old. The first of two pandemics involving the deadly influenza virus.


SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) broke out in Southern China, quickly travelling to Hong Kong and even Canada. This deadly respiratory virus claimed roughly 774 deaths spread out over 8,000 individual cases across 37 countries.

Symptoms of SARS are often described as flu-like. Those infected presented signs of lethargy, coughing, and a sore throat that led to shortness of breath and sometimes even pneumonia. Unfortunately, there is no cure or vaccine available. Today, doctors fight SARS with isolation and antibiotics.


How about something a little more recent? Ebola took the world by storm back in 2014, originating in Central Africa and claiming over 10,000 lives worldwide in the most widespread outbreak in the disease’s short history.

Early symptoms include joint aches, fever, and weakness, making way for more severe symptoms over time, including raised rashes, internal bleeding, severe weight loss, and chest pain. Vaccines are currently being tested, but there are no licensed Ebola vaccines available at this time.

Swine Flu

Just to make you squirm a little here is another more contemporary addition. 2009’s Swine Flu Pandemic made headlines and took countless lives with its influenza derivative H1N1. Sound familiar? That’s because H1N1 took over 20 million lives back in 1918. It didn’t take as many lives as it did on its first go around, but it sure scared a lot of people.  The Centre for Disease Control declared Swine Flu a pandemic on June 11, 2009 following cases reported across 70 countries. A vaccine was developed, but a lot of lives were lost. Some sources say it claimed upwards of 203,000 casualties.


This one should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. The HIV epidemic hit American soil back in 1981, disproportionately affecting homosexual males and African Americans, with nearly 8,000 reported cases by the end of 1984. By 1989, 145 countries had reported 142,000 cases of AIDS.

AIDS is relentless and still incurable. Symptoms include immunodeficiency, hearing loss, and infections. All the more reason to practice safe sex and maintain an active relationship with your family doctor.

Asian Flu

The Asian flu hit China back in 1957, then quickly spread to the United States, causing roughly 70,000 deaths. The virus was quickly identified and a vaccine was developed, but remained in short supply.

The flu hit in waves. First, it hit school children and their families in the United States and Asia followed by a second wave, particularly deadly for seniors and residents of the UK. Asian Flu (H2N2) is a particularly deadly variation of influenza (H1N1) and its current variation (H5N1) is informally referred to as Bird or Avian Flu.

Great Plague of London

The Great Plague of London, spanning from 1665 to 1666, was the last appearance of the bubonic plague in England. It took nearly 100,000 lives, a quarter of London’s population, in just 18 months. Though a relative of Black Death, London’s Great Plague was more contained and killed far less people. At its height, it still killed an estimated 8,000 people per week.


The Zika virus is a mosquito borne disease that can cause muscle and joint pain, skin rashes, and fever. But that’s not all. According to the CDC, Zika infection during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects and pregnancy problems.

Though Zika isn’t classified as a pandemic, we included it on this list because it very well could be in the near future. Currently, there are no approved vaccines, and the CDC strongly recommends that individuals avoid mosquito bites and practice safe sex to avoid infection.

Christopher Brown