10 Ruthless Pandemics The World Has Ever Witnessed

Scientists and medical investigators have for years have varied over the correct definition of a pandemic (is it a pandemic or an epidemic). Still, everyone concurs that the word defines the large-scale occurrence of disease in a profusion of what could usually be expected in a geographical location.

Cholera, Influenza, smallpox, and bubonic plague are some of the most ruthless killers in human history. And outbreaks of these illnesses over international borders are appropriately described as a pandemic, mainly smallpox, which has killed nearly 300-500 million people in its 12,000-year existence throughout history.

What About The Novel Coronavirus Pandemic?

In late 2019, in the Wuhan city of China, the novel coronavirus has infected millions of people worldwide. No country has remained untouched by the brutal effects of the virus. The novel coronavirus, also called SARS CoV-2, causes the disease COVID-19 (a shortened form of “coronavirus disease of 2019″).

While it was initially observed to be an epidemic in China, it spread across the globe within months. The WHO announced COVID-19 as a pandemic in March, and by the end of that month, the world saw more than half-million individuals infected and about 30,000 deaths.

The infection rate in the United States and other nations was still spiking.

With the coronavirus pandemic, people worldwide have become more familiar with the best strategies during a pandemic, from maintaining good hand hygiene to social distancing.

Countries all over the world announced compulsory shelter-in-place orders, closing schools, workplaces, and public places. Numerous companies and many more individual researchers started working on tests, treatments, and vaccines.

The urge for the human race to outlive the pandemic became the chief concern for people worldwide.

No one knows where this novel coronavirus pandemic will come to an end, but we can learn something from the cruelest pandemics that happened in human history.

They are probably the best teachers, which will help make our way to save numerous lives.

In this blog, you will come across the details of some of the brutal pandemics of history along with their year of outbreak, causes, and death toll.



DEATH TOLL: 36 million

First identified in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976, HIV/AIDS has absolutely proven itself as a global pandemic, which has killed more than 36 million people since 1981.

Presently, 31 – 35 million people are living with HIV, most of which belong to Sub-saharan Africa, where five percent of the total population (about 21 million people) are infected.

With advancements in healthcare technologies, people have found many ways to make HIV more manageable. Furthermore, most of the infected people are now able to live productive lives with greater ease.

Between 2005 and 2012, the per year global deaths from HIV/AIDS dropped from 2.2 million to 1.6 million.

2. FLU PANDEMIC (1968)

CAUSE: Influenza

DEATH TOLL: 20 – 50 million

A category 2 Flu pandemic, also called “the Hong Kong Flu,” the 1968 flu pandemic was caused due to the H3N2 strain of the Influenza A virus, a genetic offshoot of the H2N2 subtype.

From the foremost reported case on July 13, 1968, in Hong Kong, it took just 17 days before outbreaks of the virus were recorded in Vietnam and Singapore, and within three months had transmitted to The Philippines, the United States, Australia, India, and Europe.

While the 1968 pandemic had a relatively low mortality rate (0.5%), it still caused over a million people, including 500,000 inhabitants of Hong Kong, about 15% of its population.

3. ASIAN FLU (1956-1958)

CAUSE: Influenza

DEATH TOLL: 2 million

Asian Flu was a pandemic outbreak caused by Influenza A of the H2N2 subtype that emerged in China in 1956 and persisted until 1958. In its two-year splurge, Asian Flu traversed from Guizhou’s Chinese state to Singapore, the United States, and Hong Kong.

The death toll estimates of the Asian Flu change based on the source, but the World Health Organization sets the ultimate tally at about 2 million deaths, 69,800 of those in the United States alone.

4. FLU PANDEMIC (1918)

CAUSE: Influenza

DEATH TOLL: 20-50 million

During 1918 – 1920, an alarmingly lethal outbreak of Influenza broke across the world, infecting more than one-third of the world’s population and taking the lives of about 20 – 50 million people.

Of the 500 million individuals infected in the 1918 pandemic, the mortality rate was expected between 10% and 20%, with nearly 25 million deaths in the first 25 weeks alone.

What made the 1918 flu pandemic distinct from other influenza outbreaks was the sufferers or the victims; where Influenza had always formerly only killed teens and the elderly or already attenuated patients, it had started killing hardy and absolutely healthy young adults while leaving children and those with impaired immune systems still alive.


CAUSE: Cholera

DEATH TOLL: 800,000+

Like its five previous manifestations, the Sixth Cholera Pandemic has its origin in India, where it slaughtered more than 800,000 before extending to North Africa, the Middle East, Russia, and Eastern Europe.

The Sixth Cholera Pandemic was also the cause of Cholera’s past American outbreak (1910 – 1911). American health officials, having taught from the past, immediately requested to isolate the infected, and at last, just 11 deaths occurred in the United States.

By 1923 Cholera cases had been reduced drastically, although it was still sustained in India.

Also Read: Diseases That Can Be Prevented by Social Distancing

6. FLU PANDEMIC (1889-1890)

CAUSE: Influenza

DEATH TOLL: 1 million

Originally the “Russian Flu” or “Asiatic Flu” as it was called, this was believed to be an outbreak of the Influenza A virus subtype H2N2, though latest discoveries have rather identified the cause to be the Influenza A virus subtype H3N8.

The initial cases were seen in May 1889 in three different and distant geographical regions, Bukhara in Central Asia (Turkestan), Athabasca in northwestern Canada, and Greenland.

Expeditious growth in the population of the 19th century, particularly in urban areas, only facilitated the flu spread, and soon the outbreak had extended throughout the world.

However, it was the first true epidemic in the period of bacteriology, and much was found from it. In the end, the 1889-1890 Flu Pandemic asserted the lives of more than a million people.


CAUSE: Cholera

DEATH TOLL: 1 million

Often believed to be the most lethal out of the seven cholera pandemics, Cholera’s third major outbreak in the 19th century persisted from 1852 – 1860.

Like the first two pandemics, the Third Cholera Pandemic began in India, extending from the Ganges River Delta before tearing through Asia, North America, Europe, and Africa and taking more than a million lives of individuals.

British healthcare provider John Snow, while working in a poor area on the outskirts of London, monitored cholera cases and finally succeeded in detecting contaminated water as the actual cause of the disease.

Tragically, the same year as his disclosure (1854) plunged as the worst year of the pandemic, in which 23,000 individuals died in Great Britain.

8. THE BLACK DEATH (1346-1353)

CAUSE: Bubonic Plague

DEATH TOLL: 75-200 million

From 1346 – to 1353 an outbreak of the Plague ravaged Europe, Asia, and Africa, with an approximate death toll of about 75 – 200 million people.

Considered to have its origin in Asia, the Plague most probably leaped continents by means of the fleas dwelling on the rats that so often lived aboard merchant ships.

Ports being significant urban centers at the time were the ideal breeding place for the rats and fleas, and therefore the insidious bacterium thrived, desolating three continents along its path.


CAUSE: Bubonic Plague

DEATH TOLL: 25 million

Considered to have killed possibly half the population of Europe, the Plague of Justinian was a bubonic plague outbreak that harmed the Byzantine Empire and Mediterranean port cities, killing nearly 25 million individuals in its year-long regime of terror.

Usually though as the first claimed incident of the Bubonic Plague, the Plague of Justinian left its mark on the world, killing about a quarter of the population of the Eastern Mediterranean and annihilating the city of Constantinople, where at its height it was killing approximately 5,000 people each day and ultimately causing the deaths of 40% of the city’s population.


CAUSE: Unknown

DEATH TOLL: 5 million

Also called the Plague of Galen, the Antonine Plague was an ancient pandemic that impacted Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and Egypt and is believed to have been either Measles or Smallpox.

However, the actual cause is still not certain. This unfamiliar disease was brought back to Rome by soldiers returning from Mesopotamia around 165AD; unintentionally, they had transmitted a condition that would kill more than 5 million people and annihilate the Roman army.


Photo of author

Janet Fudge

Janet Fudge writes on general health topics for CheapMedicineShop.com. She holds a post-graduate diploma in Public Health with a major in epidemiology. During the outbreak of COVID-19, Janet actively volunteered in vaccination drives throughout the state of Iowa. She lives in Iowa with her husband and two children.