Ebola is running wild like Hulkamania (Ebolamania?) and while everyone is busy pulling the “Hide your kids! Hide your wife!” routine, and demanding that we drop nukes on everyone with a slight cough, it’s important to keep things in perspective. And one of the best ways to do that is to take a look at how Ebola compares to some of the worst outbreaks in history. While Ebola is certainly something to take seriously, keep in mind that it has a long, long way to go before it even begins to compare to any of these 9 outbreaks that were definitely worse than Ebola.
Hong Kong Flu, 1968
Death Toll: 1,000,000
No one takes the flu seriously, but through the years it has been a massive killer. Mostly, this is due to how contagious it is since the death rate for those who get it is pretty low. The Hong Kong Flu (named because it started in Hong Kong and spread from there) only had a death rate of less than 0.5%, meaning that less than 1 out of every 100 people who got it died. Still, around 1,000,000 people died, so that tells you how massive it was. That means that roughly 200,000,000 around the world came down with the Hong Kong Flu, including 500,000 in Hong Kong alone. And this wasn’t even the worst flu outbreak ever. Not even close.
Russian Flu, 1889
Death Toll: 1,000,000
Thanks to the rapid industrialization of the Western world, especially the construction of railroads, which allowed people to move around more, and spread their filth to all parts of the world, this was the first true global pandemic in history. Still, given that back in the day, you still couldn’t hop aboard an airplane and spread disease to another country, the fact that 1,000,000 people still died is pretty goddamn impressive (or terrifying, depending on your perspective, I suppose.) In the end, the Russian Flu (its origins are believed to have been St. Petersburg, Russia) killed at least two princes, a handful of other European nobles, and several prominent society types around the world. As you can see, Russia has always been a pain in the ass.
Asian Flu, 1957
Death Toll: Anywhere from 1,000,000 to 4,000,000
If you haven’t guessed by now, the lesson is don’t fuck around with the flu. This particular strain began in China, where some experts believe that it evolved from a combination between a pre-existing flu strain and a mutation in wild ducks (no, really…) and then spread around the world from there. Given China’s huge population, it’s no surprise that the death toll climbed as high as it did, but nearly 70,000 people in the United States died from this one too, so it got around. Goddamn ducks.
Cholera, 19th century
Death Toll: More than 2,000,000
Cholera was the disease that just wouldn’t go away. It went through at least six different outbreaks during the 19th century, and technically, we’re still considered to be in the midst of the 7th Cholera epidemic, which has lasted from 1961 to the present. Of course, since we’re not on the Oregon Trail, we’ve figured out how to handle this shit a little better. But back in the day, Cholera was a cold killer, wiping out millions of people around the world, including more than 1,000,000 in Russia alone during the 3rd Cholera epidemic, which lasted from 1852-1860. The biggest culprit? Dirty, contaminated water, which means that the time you pissed in your bro’s sink when you were drunk was potentially an act of biological warfare. Good going, Saddam.
Death Toll: More than 30,000,000
We’ve all kind of chilled about HIV/AIDS in the last decade or so, probably because we’re all used to seeing Magic Johnson looking all fat and happy over 20 years after he was diagnosed with the disease. But make no mistake, AIDS has killed a ridiculous amount of people, the majority of whom reside in the Congo River basin in Africa, where it’s less of a Magic Johnson disease and more of a Everyone in Town is Gonna Die disease. I’m just saying, this shit is still running wild, so keep your stuff wrapped up.
Spanish Flu, 1918
Death Toll: 75,000,000
Holy shit! Look at that number. Some experts believe it was actually more like 100,000,000, which at the time was roughly 5% of the world’s population. Around 500,000,000 people actually got sick from the disease, which makes it maybe the single biggest outbreak in history in terms of sheer numbers.
If you know your history, you can look at the date and figure out that this came right on the heels of World War I, which meant that people around the world probably thought the devil had gotten loose and was up to no good, scheming up end of the world scenarios in his horned head. But really, World War I may in fact have been the catalyst for the outbreak, what with all the troop movements and cramped conditions in the trenches. It’s even been theorized that the epidemic actually began in Fort Riley, Kansas, where the disease originated in pigs just like in that one episode of The Walking Dead, and then the American troops spread it to Europe where it ran wild.
What made this flu strain particularly unique is that it targeted healthy dudes and lady dudes in the primes of their lives rather than old people and babies, who are the flu’s usual favorite targets, mostly because the flu is a dick. The reason for this seems to be because this strain actually worked its black magic by causing an overreaction of the immune system, and since younger, otherwise healthier people have better immune systems, theirs went into overdrive and killed them, while the weak immune systems of old people and babies actually protected them for a change. Never forget: nature hates you.
Antonine Plague, 165-180 AD
Death Toll: 30% of the population of Europe, West Asia and North Africa
You know you’re into some serious shit when death tolls start being reported as percentages of the population, and this was the first really nasty one to ravage the classical Roman world. Unlike subsequent plagues, it’s been theorized that this was actually a Smallpox outbreak, which means that even the survivors probably ended up scarred messes.
The disease was likely spread from Asia by Roman troops, and at its peak was so bad that over 5,000 people a day in Rome died from it. The Roman Emperor himself, Lucius Verus, may have even succumbed to the disease, and the Roman army in particular was devastated by it. Thankfully, no one would ever have to worry about a plague like this again. Oh, wait…
Plague of Justinian, 541 AD
Death Toll: 40% of Constantinople, around 25% of the population of the Eastern Mediterranean, perhaps more
This was where the Bubonic Plague got its nasty start, and it’s never truly been defeated since. Now that’s a disease to worry about. It’s had many ups and downs, lots of recurrences and scared the shit out of whole cultures, but it’s rarely been as bad as it was right at the start, when it wasted almost half of Constantinople, at the time the most powerful city in the world. It was so bad that nobody knows for sure how many people truly died. That’s because in some places everyone died. It spread quickly and killed quickly, and even the Emperor Justinian caught the plague, although he miraculously survived. I’m sure that was fun.
The cause of the plague itself was the same as what causes every other plague outbreak – rats. Or more specifically, the fleas that live on rats. They come over on dirty ass ships and start biting people and then all hell breaks loose. And in the worst cases, like this one, society itself is fundamentally altered forever. Or like in this next case…
Black Death, 1346-1350
Death Toll: 30-70% of the population
Yes, this is the big one. This is what everyone pictures when they hear about the Bubonic Plague. That’s because it damn near killed everyone. Whole villages and towns were wiped from the face of the earth, rich people died, poor people died, priests, farmers… it didn’t matter.
It was such a life-altering event that it forever changed society, and is credited with essentially ending feudalism and ushering in the age of the wage, as the surviving work force suddenly found that it had leverage and, besides, a lot of the old feudal lords were rotting in the ground.
Meanwhile, many survivors took it as a sign from God (because of course they did…) and still more decided to blame it on the Jews (because of course they did, part two…) sparking generations of fear, superstition and resentment which thankfully didn’t have any long term consequences or anything. There is not enough sarcasm in the world for that last part.
I mean, now that’s a goddamn disease. It killed everyone, changed the entire structure of society and planted the seeds for centuries of religious strife, persecution and outright genocide. Ebola, you’ve got some work to do if you want to run with the big dogs. On second thought, we’d be totally cool if you decided to chill. After all, as you can see, we’ve been through enough already.
Ebola image by Shutterstock