14 Deadliest Viruses (Pandemics) In History

If you want to stay safe from a pandemic, it might be a good idea to learn more about the deadliest viruses that we have witnessed in human history. At the beginning of 2020, most people were making jokes about COVID-19 and now we are avoiding social interaction with others. But, is this the deadliest virus so far? Learn more about this topic from this article.

The most fatal pandemics have affected people of all ages, genders, races, and ethnicities. In some cases, they have halved the population of cities and villages. Thousands of people have died before they could be cured. Some of them have lasted for a few weeks while others were present for years. Many of these viruses were attacking the respiratory system, but others were deadly because they were disrupting the cardiovascular system or the immune system in general. With the help of our article, you will:

  • Learn more about the most fatal outbreaks
  • Get familiar with the “mechanics” of these viruses
  • Find out how to protect yourself

So, would you like to be prepared if a “second wave” of a horrific disease strikes the world? Keep reading!

1. Plague of Justinian/ Justinianic Plague

Type of disease: Bubonic plague
Year: From 541 to 549
Estimated deaths: between 25 and 100 million
Location: Near East, Europe, the Mediterranean countries
Origin: Pelusium (port town), Egypt

There were a few notable plagues throughout human history, but the Plague of Justinian was the first pandemic. Soon after it was reported in the port town of Pelusium in Egypt, it has started spreading to other Mediterranean countries, the Near East, and Europe. It was named after Justinian I, the most notable Roman/Byzantine emperor. Even though it’s difficult to confirm the numbers, experts believe that between 25 and 100 million people have died as a result of the Plague of Justinian, making it one of the deadliest pandemics of all time.

  • The plague lasted for eight years
  • It has affected the lives of millions of people in many countries
  • There were days when 10,000 people were dying in Constantinople alone

2. 1957-1958 Influenza Pandemic

Type of disease: Influenza
Year: From 1957 to 1958
Estimated deaths: between 1 and 4 million
Location: Worldwide
Origin: Guizhou, China

There’s no doubt that a disease like influenza can spread quickly, but even the experts were surprised when the influenza A virus subtype H2N2 started spreading fast in 1957. It was actually a combination of human and avian influenza that was probably found in geese for the first time. It took just a few months for this virus to reach Western Europe and the United States. There were two waves of this disease that affected people of all ages. The good news was that a vaccine was prepared quickly enough to prevent even more damage.

  • Influenza pandemic that started in China
  • It spread across the globe in less than 6 months
  • A vaccine was invented in the first year

3. The Encephalitis Lethargica Pandemic (1915-1926)

Type of disease: Encephalitis
Year: From 1915 to 1926
Estimated deaths: Around 1.6 million
Location: Worldwide
Origin: Vienna, Austria

Cases of encephalitis were not uncommon at the beginning of the 20th century, but what has puzzled many scientists was the new form of this disease that appeared in Austria in 1916. Actually, it took them a while before they’ve realized that this is a specific form of encephalitis. We should mention that at this time, WWI was raging in Europe and around the globe. What’s interesting is that the pandemic has ended all of a sudden in 1926. With over 1.5 million fatalities, this is one of the deadliest viruses that the world has witnessed.

  • This was a specific form of encephalitis
  • Millions of people were affected and over 1.5 million have died
  • The disease appeared (and ceased to exist) all of a sudden

4. Plague of Cyprian

Type of disease: Bubonic plague
Year: From 249 to 262
Estimated deaths: over 1 million
Location: Roman Empire
Origin: Ethiopia

On the list of deadliest viruses and pandemics, we have another one that occurred in ancient times. The Plague of Cyprian appeared in Ethiopia, which was then part of the Roman Empire. It was named after St. Cyprian, a bishop that has recorded the plague. Rome and Carthage, two big cities at the time were experiencing hundreds of deaths every day. The pandemic has lasted for 13 years and was one of the causes of famine in the affected areas. There’s no record about how many people have died due to famine, but it’s estimated that more than one million people have died during the Plague of Cyprian.

  • It was named after a bishop who documented the pandemic
  • This plague has lasted for over 10 years
  • It affected most parts of the Roman Empire and weakened it

5. Flu pandemic (1889-1890)

Type of disease: Influenza
Year: From 1889 to 1890
Estimated deaths: around 1 million
Location: Worldwide
Origin: Bukhara, Russian Empire (modern Uzbekistan)

Many of the pandemics were caused by influenza. The flu pandemic that started in 1889 and ended a year later is one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. It appears in the Russian Empire (in a city in modern Uzbekistan). Since transportation was relatively easy at the end of the 19th century, the virus has spread around Russia in a matter of weeks and reached the USA, Europe and other parts of the world within months. There were smaller outbreaks in the following years too. It’s worth mentioning that this pandemic was also called Russian flu and Asiatic flu.

  • One of the deadliest influenza pandemics
  • The Russian Empire, where it appeared, was affected the most, but people have died across the globe
  • It lasted for over a year and resulted in around one million deaths

6. The Spanish Flu

Type of disease: Influenza
Year: From 1918 to 1920
Estimated deaths: between 17 and 50 million
Location: Worldwide
Origin: Unknown

Even though it’s not known for sure where the Spanish flu has occurred for the first time, most people know it as the Spanish flu. One of the reasons for that is the fact that the French papers have called it like that after the virus has started spreading to France. The Spanish flu is the second deadliest pandemic in our history. It lasted for over two years and occurred in four waves. After the first wave, the situation was seemingly under control, but the second wave which occurred a few months later was the most fatal. Both young and old people were affected and seemingly healthy people were in a difficult situation too. The virus has probably stopped because it has mutated into a less dangerous form.

  • The origin of the virus is unknown
  • It appeared after the end of WWI
  • There were four waves of this flu

7. The Third Plague Pandemic

Type of disease: Bubonic plague
Year: From 1855 to 1960
Estimated deaths: more than 12 million
Location: Worldwide (India and China most affected)
Origin: Yunnan, China

It appears that many of these pandemics have started in China and the Third Plague Pandemic was not different. It all started back in 1855 and it was probably a rat that transmitted the disease to a person. Basically, poor hygiene was one of the main reasons for the problem. More than 12 million people have died as a result of this Bubonic plague in India and China alone. The disease has reached locations that are thousands of miles away like Cuba and the UK after a few decades. It’s worth mentioning that this is also one of the longest-lasting pandemics that the world has seen (over one century).

  • This disease started in Yunnan, China
  • It has caused problems for over a century
  • More than 12 million people have died in India and China alone

8. Antonine Plague

Type of disease: Smallpox/Measles (?)
Year: From 165 to 180
Estimated deaths: between 5 and 10 million
Location: Roman Empire
Origin: The Near East

Even though traveling was not very common in ancient times, there was one category of people that have traveled a lot – soldiers. The Antonine Plague, or Plague of Galen as some people call it, originates from the Near East. Some members of the Roman legions have caught the disease and brought it to Italy. It was not clear what kind of disease caused the deaths of up to 10 million people, but various historians suspect smallpox or measles. Keep in mind that at that time the population of the world was around 190 million which means that up to 5% of the world’s population have lost their lives. Pharyngitis, diarrhea, fever, and skin eruption – these were some of the symptoms that have been associated with the disease.

  • It’s unclear whether smallpox or measles have caused this pandemic
  • The Antonine Plague was spread by the troops of the Roman Empire
  • It’s estimated that around 5% of the world’s population at the time has died

9. Honk Kong Flu

Type of disease: Influenza
Year: From 1968 to 1970
Estimated deaths: between 1 and 4 million
Location: Worldwide
Origin: Hong Kong

Although it’s called the Hong Kong flu, many scientists believe that this is one of the viruses that have emerged in mainland China. In any case, the first registered outbreak was in Hong Kong in 1968. It took just a couple of weeks for other countries like Singapore and Vietnam to report cases. The world has witnessed a pandemic ten years before that, but it was not prepared for a synchronized response that will stop the outbreak. After two months, there were many cases in Europe, Australia, and the United States. The good thing in all of this is that the death rate was not very high compared to the number of cases. After four months of its occurrence, a vaccine was developed and this is one of the reasons why many countries didn’t take special measures.

  • It probably originates from Hong Kong, but it could’ve started in mainland China too
  • It appeared a decade after another deadly pandemic caused by influenza
  • The scientists have developed a vaccine four months after the first case was recorded

10. The Fourth Cholera Pandemic

Type of disease: Plague
Year: From 249 to 262
Estimated deaths: over 600,000
Location: Worldwide
Origin: Bangladesh

Apparently, there were a few cholera pandemics in our history and the fourth one was among the deadliest. The disease started spreading in Bangladesh and it was a group of Muslim pilgrims that have traveled to Mecca in 1863 that made the situation worse. Once the pilgrimage was finished thousands of pilgrims were infected. That’s how cholera started appearing in Russia, Europe, North America, and Africa. In the following years, the situation got worse. For instance, in the early 1870s, over 50,000 Americans died from this disease. In 12 years, there were over 600.000 fatalities.

  • Muslim pilgrims from Bangladesh have started this pandemic
  • Dozens of countries were affected by this problem
  • Over 600,000 people lost their lives in 12 years

11. Black Death

Type of disease: Bubonic plague
Year: From 1346 to 1353
Estimated deaths: between 75 and 200 million
Location: Europe, North Africa, and Asia
Origin: Asia (?)

Black Death is the name given to a plague pandemic that probably originated from East Asia or Central Asia. However, it was Europe that suffered the most from the consequence of this horrible disease. It’s quite difficult to calculate the number of fatalities, given that the pandemic has lasted for over a decade and there were not accurate stats at the time, but it’s estimated that up to half of Europe’s population could’ve died as a result of it. Globally, between 75 and 200 million people have died. This is why Black Death is considered to be the deadliest pandemic of all. Scientists believe that rodents are the main cause of this disease. Images of plague doctors that had bird-like beaks are one of the first things that people (even today) associate with this horrible disease.

  • The deadliest pandemic of all
  • It affected the whole world, especially Europe
  • Up to 200 million people may have died from the Black Death

12. The Sixth Cholera Pandemic

Type of disease: Cholera
Year: From 1899 to 1923
Estimated deaths: over 800,000
Location: Worldwide
Origin: India

Here’s another example of a pandemic that has started spreading very fast after a religious meeting. It was a Hinduist religious ceremony that’s held every 12 years (Haridwar Kumbh Mela) that was identified as a source of the disease. After a short time, cases of cholera were registered in Persia, Afghanistan, and Russia. In the following years, there were cases in Africa, Europe, and the United States. Many countries were prepared and quarantined people, but still, in the end, there were over 800,000 deaths. There are seven cholera outbreaks in human history and the last one is ongoing.

  • Caused by a religious gathering in India
  • It led to the death of more than 800,000 people across the globe
  • The seventh cholera outbreak is ongoing

13. The Third Cholera Pandemic

Type of disease: Cholera
Year: From 1846 to 1860
Estimated deaths: over 1 million
Location: Worldwide
Origin: India

Poor hygiene was once again the reason why cholera appeared in India and spread around the world. The third cholera pandemic started in 1837 and lasted for almost 20 years. Although it started in India, it was Russia that was affected the most. According to some sources, almost one million people have died there in 15 years. Thousands have died in North America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Contaminated water sources contributed to the outbreak. Public water pumps in the UK were shut down as a result of that. The concept of public health has become a priority for many countries after that.

  • The third cholera pandemic started in India
  • Russia has suffered the most from this pandemic
  • Contaminated water contributed to the transmission of this disease

14. COVID-19

Type of disease: Influenza
Year: From 2019 – ongoing
Estimated deaths: over 420.000 as of 12 June 2020
Location: Worldwide
Origin: Wuhan, China

The coronavirus pandemic or the COVID-19 pandemic as some people call it might not be the deadliest among the deadliest events of this kind, but it’s definitely worth mentioning because it’s an ongoing event. The first outbreak was recorded in Wuhan, China in December 2019. The virus has started spreading rapidly around the world at the end of February and beginning of March 2020. The world is still struggling with one of the most lethal viruses we have seen in decades. What’s good is that numerous scientific teams are testing vaccines and it looks like the virus is losing its grip in some parts of the world. On the other hand, since June, it has started spreading rapidly in South America.

  • COVID-19 is an ongoing pandemic that has affected almost every country in the world
  • More than 420.000 people have died as of 12 June 2020
  • Scientists are still working on a vaccine
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