As coronavirus deaths rise, here are the most deadly diseases in history

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Before the coronavirus, there were many deadly diseases that have killed millions around the world. These diseases are typically classified as epidemics or pandemics.

Generally, pandemic outbreaks are caused by a novel infectious agent that is newly capable of spreading rapidly. An epidemic occurs when there is a sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected. Past epidemics and pandemics have mainly arisen from animal sources.

Most people are not immune, allowing the virus to spread quickly and fatally, with the resulting death toll often high. Increasing travel and mobility has made it more likely that these diseases spread.


The outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, China, in December, has currently been classified as an epidemic after the disease infected nearly 7,700 across the world, claiming over 170 lives to date. According to the World Health Organization, an epidemic is the rapid spread of an infectious disease to a larger number of people.

Here’s a timeline of previous pandemics and epidemics.

Bubonic Plague (Black Death) pandemic

From 1347 – 1353, the disease spread across Europe and West Asia, claiming the lives of up to 25 million people.

Cholera pandemic

This outbreak originated in Asia at the Ganges River that flows through modern-day India and Bangladesh and spread from 1852 – 1860. It spread across Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America, claiming the lives of a million people.

Spanish Influenza pandemic

The worst pandemic to date, the Spanish influenza spread rapidly at the end of World War I, between January 1918 and December 1920. Spanish flu spread across the world, even reaching some remote Pacific islands, killing approximately 50 million people and wiping out between three and five percent of the global population.

H2N2 virus pandemic

This virus was first reported in Singapore in February 1957 and then spread throughout East Asia through the end of 1958, reaching coastal US in summer 1957. The estimated number of deaths was 1.1 million globally. H2N2 is comprised of three different genes that originated from an avian influenza A virus.

AIDS pandemic

First identified in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976, the disease has killed more than 36 million people since 1981. Today, there are an estimated 31 to 35 million people living with the disease, most of whom live in Sub-Saharan Africa.
However, as medicine has developed, the annual global death rate between 2005 and 2012 dropped from 2.2 million to 1.6 million.

Influenza A (H3N2 virus) pandemic

This 1968 pandemic contained one of the same genes from the 1957 virus and was first found in the US. An estimated 1 million people died worldwide, with around 100,000 in the US. Most deaths were among those ages 65 and older. The H3N2 virus continues to occur globally as seasonal influenza A.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome pandemic

Known as SARS, the virus was first detected in China in November 2002, but an English report of the disease was not published until February 2003. During the outbreak, a total of 8,098 people were infected, with 774 dying from the disease.

H5N1 (bird flu) epidemic

The first known occurrence of bird flu was a fatal case in China in November 2003, which was first attributed to SARS. The case was later confirmed as bird flu, after South Korea reported H5N1 found in poultry.

H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic

Detected in early 2009, swine flu caused an estimated 500,000 deaths in the first year of the pandemic, infecting 60.8 million people in the US alone. Unusually, the swine flu strain of influenza disproportionately affected people under the age of 65, accounting for approximately 80 percent of the global cases.

Haitian cholera epidemic

In October 2010, ten months after the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti killed over 200,000 people, and displaced a million, a cholera outbreak infected over 665,000 people, with a death toll of 8,183. In January 2020, the UN reported that Haiti has had no new cases of cholera for a year.

Middle East respiratory syndrome epidemic

Known as MERS, this disease was first detected in Saudi Arabia in September 2012. The virus has since infected 94 people, causing 46 deaths. Thought to have originated from bats, which infect other animals that can then infect humans.

H7N9 epidemic

The disease, a novel avian influenza virus, was first found to infect humans in China in March 2013, resulting in 131 confirmed cases and 56 deaths within two months of the outbreak. The WHO recorded a 30 percent mortality rate, with 127 unofficial deaths as of April 2014.

Ebola epidemic

Also known as EVD (Ebola virus disease), the outbreak originated in remote villages in Central Africa in February 2014. Ebola caused the death of 11,310, and a further 15 outside of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone where the outbreak took place. The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and then spreads through direct contact between bodily fluids.

Zika epidemic

Starting on Easter Island in Chile in February 2014, the mosquito-borne disease spread across North and South America, reaching the Caribbean islands and some Pacific islands. The WHO declared the outbreak a public health emergency in February 2016 after evidence that Zika causes birth defects and neurological problems surfaced. The virus caused the death of 24 infants in Brazil.

Yellow fever epidemic

In December 2015, the outbreak originated in Luanda, Angola, with the first cases confirmed in January 2016. China and Kenya also reported confirmed cases, but no deaths, while Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo reported a combined 595 deaths.

Yemeni cholera epidemic

After an initial outbreak in October 2016, there was a surge of cases in April 2017, numbering 1.2 million. To date, the virus has claimed 2,500 lives, 58 percent of which were children. The UN has deemed the situation the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Madagascan plague epidemic

Centered in the two largest cities, Antananarivo and Toamasina, the outbreak spread quickly from its initial outbreak date in August 2017 via person-to-person transmission. Plague infections often take place annually between December and April, however, 2017 was a particularly severe outbreak, claiming 156 lives.

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