The emergence and recurrence of infectious diseases has lent credence to the fact that nature is never static. It is also a warning signal to the scientific world to gear up for more complicated emergencies in future. The pharmaceutical and medical worlds, in particular, have to be ahead of the times, through cutting-edge research and drug development, to ensure that the world is not overwhelmed by any infectious disease.
In the history of mankind, infectious diseases have impacted humanity negatively, while equally opening up new vistas in pharmaceutical and medical researches. Unfortunately, mankind’s shift into agrarian life about 10, 000 years ago worsened the threats posed by these diseases. With human communities getting more connected, diseases like influenza, smallpox, leprosy, malaria, and tuberculosis wreaked great havoc and created a sense of trepidation among mankind.
The first historically documented pandemic occurred during the Peloponnesian War in Athens, Greece in 430 B.C. The disease was carried across the Athenian walls during the siege. According to historians, around two-thirds of the population died from the disease.
This was followed by the Antonine Plague, which emerged in 163 AD, and is now seen as an early version of smallpox. This plague started with the Huns infecting the Germans, who then passed it to the Romans. It was from the Romans that the plague spread throughout the entirety of the Roman Empire.
With the steady growth of human civilisations, which witnessed the conquest of empires around the world, infectious diseases gathered greater momentum to spread. In 541 A.D., the Justinian plague broke out in Egypt, spreading across Palestine and the Byzantine Empire, and eventually reaching the Mediterranean. This particular plague was significant with the impact it had on that generation. Emperor Justinian’s political calculations to hold on to power were affected by the plague, which also took a great toll on about 26 per cent of the world’s population.
Recent history has had its share of the pandemics, albeit with greater sophistications in the medical sciences. After leprosy had ravaged Europe throughout the 11th century, it was followed by the infamous Black Death of the 14th century, which remains the second and largest outbreak of the bubonic plague and claimed the lives of 30 to 60 per cent of the European population. In 1665, the bubonic plague appeared again, causing the death of 20 per cent of London’s population.
With the advent of the 20th century, influenza pandemics became recurrent. Between 1889 and 1890, 360,000 died from the Russian Flu. This figure was minimal, compared to the 50 million deaths that resulted from the Spanish Flu pandemic that began in 1918.
The 1918 pandemic was shortly followed by the Asian Flu pandemic that saw two waves in the 1950s. The final pandemic of the 20th century was the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) pandemic, which was first identified in 1981. The spread of HIV/AIDS is still considered to be a pandemic, as more than 32 million lives have been lost to this disease over the past four decades.
Jolts and lessons
The most recent pandemics are the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic and the current COVID-19 pandemic which have been caused by the coronavirus. The SARS pandemic killed 774 people before it was put in check through effective quarantine efforts. For global health agencies, the SARS pandemic was as a wake-up call which revealed the world’s unpreparedness to deal with and prevent the spread of emergent infectious diseases which have the propensity to develop into pandemics.
There were suggestions that the lessons learned in the SARS pandemic were deployed in the management and control of the H1N1, Ebola, and Zika outbreaks. Surprisingly, despite this suggestion, the world was caught napping and unprepared for COVID-19, going by its declaration as a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation on 11 March, 2020.
More than 4.13 million deaths have been attributed to COVID-19, with over 192 million confirmed cases, as of 22 July, 2021. Apart from the loss of lives and number of cases, COVID-19 shattered the economic fortunes of the world and created a form of social restriction that made normal human interaction a taboo. It has also impacted negatively on mental health, food security and the global population.
The COVID-19 pandemic also taught the whole world great lessons on how to prepare for future emergencies, as many scientists warn of their inevitability in the future. There is the likelihood that the strategies that have been implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19 will remain in place to continue to protect the world from the spread of infectious diseases in the future.