The 4 Worst Pandemics Of All Time

This past week in Dhaka, Bangladesh, they identified another outbreak of avian flu. Officials believe they averted the disaster for now, but the re-emergence of the H5N1 virus is concerning.

If you have your health, you’re sitting in a much better spot than 95% of folks. According to the Global Burden of Disease (GBD), at any given time 95% of us on this planet are not well. That data includes everything from lower back pain to more serious illnesses like diabetes.

Historically, pandemics have killed more people than any war, but H5N1 is not yet on the top five list. Let’s hoep it stays that way. For the people who lived during these four outbreaks, it might as well have been the end of times.

The Antonine Plague | 165-180 AD


What was either smallpox or measles, the Antonine Plague or Plague of Galen, killed as many as 2,000 people a day in the Roman Empire.

This went on for fifteen years, killing an estimated 5-million people. In some places, it wiped out entire towns. Mortality rate for the infected was low at 25%, but death may have been the least of your concerns if you contracted this plague.

Symptoms included fever, diarrhea and pharyngitis. You may also have developed pustules, yellow-brown inflammations of pus from fungal infection. At that time there were no antibiotics, so your best bet for fighting the symptoms was magic.

For better or worse, the survivors contributed their resistance to the pool of human genetics.

The Plague of Justinian | 541 AD


By the time the Plague of Justinian struck the Byzantine Empire and the port cities of the Mediterranean, plagues were new and improved. This one wiped out somewhere between 25-50 million people, over 10% of the Earth’s population at the time.

The cause of all the chaos? A bacterium, the same one that caused the bubonic plague.

If you lived during the Plague of Justinian, and came in contact with the bacterium, you would suffer some awful symptoms. Your first symptoms would have been flu-like, headaches, fever and vomiting, giving way to muscle cramps and seizures. You may note your lymph nodes swelling or suffer necrosis of the hands, nose or mouth.

Without antibiotics, the people of Byzantium suffered with no hope. The only cure for this pandemic was the death of the host.

The Spanish Flu | 1918-1919


Remember that H5N1 I mentioned in the beginning? The great granddaddy of that virus was H1N1, otherwise known as the swine flu.

Viruses get a little tricky, as there are variants of H1N1 which only a scientist could discern. If a bad strain infected you, you would only know moments before it took your life if at all. This was how somewhere between 50-100 millions people found out in 1918 and 1919.

Today we have H1N1 more under control. You may have even contracted and fought a version of this flu. The symptoms are the same for variants you can fight as they are for those you cannot: cough, fever, sore throat, stuffy nose, aches, chills, and fatigue.

Current treatment is symptom relief as we have no cure once the symptoms set in. The Spanish Flu hit before the we discovered penicillin, but it didn’t matter. Antibiotics do nothing to viruses.

HIV/AIDS – 1959-Today


The first name the press gave HIV, Human immunodeficiency virus, was GRIDS. That stood for Gay Related Immunodeficiency.

During the 1980s AIDS swept through the gay community first, causing a scared public to react in many reprehensible ways, starting with the attribution of the disease to that community. Many blame this connection for misappropriation to our shameful hesitation to react with appropriate measures.

After the initial wave hit, we figured out that anyone could contract HIV. What we did not know at first that HIV was part one of a two-part pandemic. The second part, AIDS, Acquired Immunodeficiency, was the killer. Anyone could die from AIDS.

Symptoms of HIV may start as flu-like. Like the flu, those symptoms can go away. During this time the virus spreads, debilitating the immune system. The afflicted grow more susceptible to infections like tuberculosis. They may lose weight or develop sores.

If left unchecked, death follows quickly.

Whereas the other pandemics on this list affected regions of the world, HIV and AIDS devastated the whole world. In some places, it it still wreaking havoc.

Though we have more advanced treatments than the ‘80s, we do not yet have a cure for AIDS. Cases seem to be decreasing.


At the risk of sounding doom and gloom, pandemics are not a question of if, but when.

Thankfully for humanity, we are beyond magic or death as the only answers. We get better and better at fighting disease all the time. At one time it seemed we would never have a way to treat cancer.

More and more HIV treatments prove effective. We get closer to treatments for illness every day.

The reason we have statistics like 95% of us on this planet are not well, is because we’ve learned to live with what ails us. Still, it’s nice to have your health.