It’s hard to believe that something so small can kill us in
epidemic numbers, not to mention utterly and completely change life as we know
it. The COVID-19 virus is about 50 times smaller than a red blood cell and
contains a single strand of RNA with 26,000 base pairs. By way of comparison,
the human genome contains 9 billion DNA base pairs. It goes to show that, at
least in nature, powerful forces can come in very small packages.
The Black Death
COVID-19 has been called the modern plague. COVID vs. the
Black Death, also known as the bubonic plague, is a comparison worth pondering,
given COVID-19’s devastating effect on the world. But the Black Death was the
most lethal pandemic in human history, killing an estimated 75 million people
during the outbreak in mid-14th century Eurasia and North Africa. Almost half
the population of Europe died, as did 30-90% of those infected. The plague
caused flu symptoms and pneumonia. But unlike COVID-19, it was caused by a
bacteria and not a virus. It spread through flea bites and contact with animals
(especially rats) but not easily from humans to humans. The bubonic plague
still exists today, with about 650 cases being reported yearly. Thankfully, it
is curable with common antibiotics.
Unfortunately, a key, disease-fighting concept was entirely
unknown during the 14th century: hygiene and public health. This life-saving
idea only gained popularity in the 19th century once it became accepted that
microoganisms can cause disease (germ theory of disease). However, the idea of
quarantining to limit spread of disease was introduced during plague, and it is
still a powerful weapon used today to combat disease. Case in point: our
response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Spanish Flu
Despite the advent of quarantine, the second largest
pandemic in history, The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20, was devastating. The
death toll from this flu was 40 million lives (death rate 10-20%) as it tore
across the world and infected over one-third of the world’s population. The
modern age of global travel was upon us for this one and helped this virus
reach all corners of the world. This flu was also unusual in that it took no
prisoners and was lethal to healthy individuals as well as the elderly and
weakened ones. A brutal combination for a worldwide pandemic.
The third largest pandemic the world has seen is HIV-AIDS.
Since first discovered in humans in 1976, it has killed 36 million of us. This
is a virus of particularly subtle but brutal design, spreading through body
fluids from sex (how do we stop this?), saliva and blood, and weakening healthy
immune systems to the point that otherwise benign infections or diseases become
lethal. Although there is no HIV vaccine, thankfully modern medicine has
developed sophisticated antiretroviral medicines that enable patients to have
normal life expectancies.
Yes friends, we as a species have seen worse pandemics than
COVID…and survived. Notably, the exact same health care measures learned in
response to these awful pandemics, including hygiene and quarantine, are as
relevant now as then. And because of our diligence in maintaining these
measures, the COVID virus, although here to stay, will not rank among the top
pandemics in history. Although our tools to combat disease are increasingly
powerful, we must remember that we are part of nature, and not apart from it.
This article first appeared on Dr.
Thanks to Kuma
Kum for sharing their work on Unsplash.