Outbreaks That Changed the World

Pandemics before the time of COVID-19
Monday 27 April 2020
Medical staff members wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, work at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan. Photo: Hector RETAMAL / AFP

Is it a pandemic, or an epidemic? An epidemic is a sudden increase in the number of cases of disease more than what’s typically expected of the population in that area. However, pandemic is defined as an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, affecting a large number of people.

Official terms aside, COVID-19 is not the first disease outbreak faced by humankind. Here are some of the biggest outbreaks that changed the course of history:

Justinian Plague (541 AD)

Death Toll: 25 million

Cause: Bubonic plague

Location: Afflicted the Byzantine Empire and Mediterranean port cities.

The Black Death (1346 – 1353)

Death Toll: 75 – 200 million

Cause: Bubonic plague

Location: It was said to have originated in Asia and the plague most likely jumped continents via the fleas living on the rats that so frequently lived aboard merchant ships. From 1346 to 1353, the plague ravaged Europe, Africa and Asia.

The Third Plague Pandemic (1855)

Death Toll: 15 million

Cause: Bubonic plague

Location: It started in China and moved to India and Hong Kong.

Spanish Flu (1918)

Death Toll: 20 – 50 million

Cause: Influenza

Location: Historians theorised that it originated in China and was spread by Chinese labourers being transported by rail across Canada on their way to Europe.

Asian Flu (1957 – 1958)

Death Toll: 2 million

Cause: Influenza

Location: Asian Flu travelled from the Chinese province of Guizhou to Singapore, Hong Kong and the United States.

Ebola (1976)

Death Toll: 14,693

Cause: Ebola virus

Location: Democratic Republic of the Congo

HIV/AIDS Pandemic (Peak: 2005 – 2012)

Death Toll: 36 million


Location: It was first identified in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976, and has proven itself as a global pandemic, killing more than 36 million people since 1981.

SARS (2003)

Death Toll: 813

Cause: Influenza

Location: China

H1N1 (2009)

Death Toll: 123,000 – 203,000

Cause: Swine-origin influenza

Location: US and Mexico

MERS (2012)

Death Toll: 858

Cause: Novel coronavirus

Location: Saudi Arabia

H7N9 Bird Flu (2013)

Death Toll: 616

Cause: Chicken avian influenza viruses

Location: China