Top 10 Worst Epidemics

Script written by Matthew Thomas. It’s hard to believe that something so tiny could destroy so many. In this video, WatchMojo.com counts down our picks for the top 10 worst epidemics. For this list, we’re looking at plagues, pandemics, epidemics and other scourges of disease that spread through the human population like wildfire, killing millions. We’re not necessarily ranking them based on how many people were killed by the plagues, but those figures definitely play into our choices. Special thanks to our users Deathincarnate, chairezd, horsetails17 and Brandon Kingsly for submitting the idea on our Suggest Page at WatchMojo.comsuggest
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Script written by Matthew Thomas.

Top 10 Worst Epidemics


It’s hard to believe that something so tiny could destroy so many. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for top 10 worst epidemics in history.

For this list, we’re looking at plagues, pandemics, epidemics and other scourges of disease that spread through the human population like wildfire, killing millions. We’re not necessarily ranking them based on how many people were killed by the plagues, but those figures definitely play into our choices.

#10: Third Cholera Pandemic
1852 - 1860

The unlucky victims of this disease suffered through hellish final days, with diarrhea, vomiting and resulting dehydration being the main symptoms. With the most deaths of any 19th-century epidemic, the third cholera pandemic began in India and spread across Asia, Europe, North America and Africa to countries like Russia, where over one million people died. However, it took an outbreak of this severity for the cause for cholera to be found: in 1854, British doctor John Snow discovered that tainted water was to blame, and it was this breakthrough that eventually allowed officials to get control of the cholera pandemic.

#9: Asian Flu Pandemic of 1957
1956 - 1958

Though it can be confirmed that this outbreak of the influenza-A virus started in China, the exact origin of the virus is contested, with one popular theory suggesting that a mutation in wild ducks joined together with a typical human strain to create the new disease. One of three flu pandemics during the 20th-century, this one was the least deadly, with estimated global death figures ranging between 1-4 million. And that’s likely due to the fact that a vaccine was created in 1957 that helped stem the rash of infections from this avian flu.

#8: World War I Typhus Epidemic
1918 - 1922

Taking place during a time of incredible strife, this typhus outbreak was another devastating result of WWI. A disease caused by bacteria, whose symptoms include severe back pain and delirium, this particular outbreak originated with lice. It was for this reason delousing stations for the soldiers had been set up on the Western Front, which helped keep those troops healthy. However, the Eastern Front was not so lucky: by the time of its peak, between 25-30 million cases were reported across Soviet regions, with three million Russians and even more Poles and Romanians dying from infection.

#7: Cocoliztli
1545 - 1548 & 1576 - 1578

This disease is categorized in a group of ailments called Viral Hemorrhagic Fever, a family of illnesses that continues to attack humanity with viruses like Ebola. Affecting the Aztecs living in the region that would become Mexico twice in less than half a century, Cocoliztli decimated the population, infecting a group that was already reeling from other diseases brought to their shores by Spanish conquerors and causing their numbers to dwindle by millions in less than a century. With symptoms that included a black tongue, dysentery, severe abdominal pain and bleeding from your nose, eyes and mouth, this Ebola-like epidemic annihilated what was once a thriving civilization.

#6: Plague of Justinian
541 - 542

A forbearer of a pandemic that will be featured later on this list, this plague is believed to’ve been brought to the Byzantine Empire, and Constantinople specifically, by infected rats traveling from Egypt on grain boats. An event that likely changed the course of European and Christian history, the Plague of Justinian left the Byzantine Empire short of healthy citizens who could act as laborers or militaries, meaning the Empire was severely weakened. With some suggesting that at its peak, the mortality rate of this plague took 5,000 lives each day; the first wave of this disease eradicated 40% of Constantinople’s population, and continued to kill through several more waves in the years that followed.

#5: Antonine Plague
165 - 180

The earliest pandemic on this list, this scourge came to the Roman Empire by way of soldiers returning from fighting in Western Asia; however, what form it took is up for debate, with some thinking smallpox or measles were to blame. Though it wasn’t as deadly as Justinian, with only 2,000 dying in Rome per day at its pinnacle and likely 5 million succumbing to the disease in total, the fact that it likely claimed the lives of two Roman emperors – Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus – served to plunge the land into fear and chaos, and likely changed the course of history.

#4: Third Plague Pandemic
1855 - 1959

The third recorded iteration of the bubonic plague, after the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death, this plague ravaged the world for over a century. Beginning with diseased rodents in China’s Yunnan province in the 1850s and spreading to all populated areas of the globe thanks to the world’s newly established interconnection, this pandemic killed 12 million – and that was just in China and India. Finally ending in 1959 when death rates from the disease dropped to roughly 200 according to the World Health Organization, this third plague pandemic allowed doctors and scientists to study the infection and test new treatments. Fortunately, that helped stave off another coming of the plague.

#3: HIV / AIDS
1981 - Present

Theorized to have spread from primates to humans sometime in the 20th-century, there was a case of an HIV-infected human in the Congo in 1959. But it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the disease was detected and named in the United States and the epidemic known as AIDS truly began to spread and define the subsequent decade. Despite early ignorance that the disease was exclusive to homosexual males and intravenous drug users, AIDS attacked those who didn’t take precautions indiscriminately and without mercy. Fortunately, after over 30-years and over 36-million deaths, scientists have been making headway in terms of treatments and possible vaccines, although sub-Saharan Africa is still badly affected.

#2: 1918 Flu Pandemic
1918 - 1920

Various strains of the influenza virus have wreaked havoc on the world again and again, but there are two things that ensured this outbreak’s inclusion: it afflicted 500 million people, killing between 50-100 million, and it mainly killed healthy adults. Most flu viruses are dangerous for the very young, the very old and the already weakened; but this strain of the H1N1 virus caused the immune systems of its victims to jump into overdrive and attack, and the healthier the immune system the more violent the result. Affecting countries across the globe as isolated the Pacific Islands or the Arctic; the outbreak nicknamed the Spanish flu has been labeled one of history’s worst natural disasters.

Before we reveal our top pick, here is an honorable – or in this case dishonorable – mention:

- 1968 Hong Kong Flu Pandemic
1968 - 1969

#1: The Black Death
1346 - 1353

Peaking in the 14th-century but affecting Europe until the 17th, the Black Death is thought to’ve killed between 75-200 million, which represented roughly 30-60% of Europe’s population at the time. Suspected by many to be a version of the bubonic plague that originated in infected rodents, this disease was most easily recognized by the tumors that covered victims’ bodies. With so many dying so rapidly, bodies littered the streets as cemeteries were at capacity. While some governments attempted quarantines and some citizens turned to God for aid, there was very little that could be done to stop this infection. That doesn’t even touch upon the horror of witnessing your loved ones suffering, or the fear that you might be next.

Do you agree with our list? Who do you think is the worst pandemic in the world’s history? For more historic Top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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