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Contagious diseases have been a part of humanity ever since the rise of early civilizations. The growing population has influenced the propagation of these diseases. One thing that contributes to this is the lack of medical advancements, and let’s just say sanitation wasn’t as sophisticated as it is nowadays.
As humanity evolves and comes up with technology and drugs that extend our average lifespan, viruses, bacteria, pathogens, parasites, and influenza also thrive for their survival and threaten our very own. Evolution is happening right before our eyes as new diseases like the COVID-19 –formerly, 2019-nCoV or Wuhan Coronavirus– continue to wreak havoc and fear across the globe.
Given the fact, epidemics can easily be transmitted within a single community. Especially for the early human civilizations. They had limited technological and medical advancements that could give them the capacity to detect and treat these illnesses. For a disease to be considered a pandemic, the epidemic should have spread to other countries aside from its area of origin.
In the past, people mainly traveled to other regions and countries for trade. Thus, trading has contributed to the propagation of deadly diseases in the past, causing a rise in death tolls.
In light of recent situations, let’s look back to some of the pandemics that humanity has ever dealt with.
Took place around 165AD, it is named for Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, A Roman Emperor. It is also being referred to as the Plague of Galen. During this period, a writer and physician of the Roman Empire named “Galen” observed the disease among the Roman Troops.
Galen described it as though it was smallpox or measles, which is still to be determined by experts– for having symptoms such as fever, sore throat, diarrhea, and dry or pus-filled skin eruption. The latter symptom would most likely appear during the 9th day of the disease if the patient lived long enough.
Believed to be contracted by the Roman Army from the Mesopotamian city of Selucia –now Iraq– to the Roman Empire (Italy) and have also affected Asia Minor, Greece, and Egypt. Accounts claimed around 2,000 deaths per day in Rome, and a total of 5 million people have died from this disease including the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius himself.
Plague of Athens
Devastated ancient Greece from 430 to 426 BC and has heavily influenced the outcome of the Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens. Historian Thucydides –who survived the disease himself– wrote that this disease emerged from Ethiopia working its way through Libya, Egypt, and wide Mediterranean settlements.
The impact of this ailment was concentrated in the city-state of Athens with accounts claiming that around 100,000 people have died from it. The strategy of the Athenians resulted in overpopulation due to the migration of people from the countryside.
This escalated the incident and fear of contamination is evident at the time. Funeral pyres –where people pile the dead to burn– and mass graves were pretty common because people are too scared to handle their dead. Symptoms include fever, sore throats, bleeding of mouth and tongue, thirst, insomnia, and diarrhea.
The cause of this plague remains a mystery because of the lack of scientific and scholarly evidence to positively identify its roots. Its reported epidemiology suggests that it might be one of the following diseases: Typhus, Smallpox, Measles, Bubonic Plague, and even Ebola.
Affecting the capital city Constantinople around 541-542AD spreading across the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire), Neo-Persian (Sasanian) Empire, including port cities around the Mediterranean sea. It is believed that infected fleas carried by the rodents came from granaries in ancient Egypt and has infested the merchant ships going back to Constantinople.
Considered one of the deadliest pandemics that has been recorded in history, it’s estimated to have claimed around 25-50 million individuals or about 13-26% of the entire human population (at the time) during its first recorded outbreak. Although some studies claim that these numbers might have been exaggerated on purpose for its possible social impacts.
Greek scholar Procopius described the symptoms as a combination of fever, vomiting, insomnia, stomach pain, delirium, and buboes or inflamed lymph nodes, some even succumb to coma. The plague of Justinian is believed to be the first case of the bubonic plague.
The Black Death
Also known as the Great Plague or Pestilence, it ravaged Eurasia from 1347 to 1353. A pandemic so iconic that sometimes it’s just being referred to as The Plague. It resulted in the death of 75 to 200 million or about 30% to 60% of the entire European population. The disease has 3 forms, namely Bubonic, Septicemic, and Pneumonic form.
The Bubonic form has been the most common due to its easier method of transmission: rats. Since sanitation was not on its highest standards, rodents infested with fleas easily travedl by merchant ships that carried grains, and infected traders that passed by the famous Silk Road brought with them the disease, infecting anyone unfortunate enough.
Aside from an actual flea-bite, respiratory droplets and contact with contaminated flesh or fluid can infect an individual just as easily. Caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis, its symptoms identical to that of the Justinian Plague with the additional possibility of gangrene and seizures.
First recorded in January 1918 and quite mysteriously subsiding in 1920. Despite its name, it is believed to have originated from Europe with the first recorded case in the United States, and the ongoing war helped influenza reach different countries rapidly.
Caused by the first H1N1 viral subtype, this virus attacks the respiratory system in a way that makes the victim’s lungs more easily subjected to bacterial infections that could result in the dramatic decline of the patient’s health.
Blackouts caused interruption on communication services during the war and may have indirectly helped the flu infect 500 million people in a matter of months. Death tolls are estimated to be between 50 to 100 million, but the ongoing war made it hard to keep and retrieve every available record.
Influenza disappeared late 1920 where it is speculated that it died with its last victims and survivors developed an immunity to the flu strain.