Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


A pandemic is a disease that affects people or animals over an extensive geographical area (from Greek pan all + demos people). Technically speaking it should cover the whole globe and affect everyone. Fortunately there has not been a pandemic in the true sense of the word.

Table of contents
1 Common killers and pandemics
2 Historical pandemics
3 Concern about possible future pandemics

Common killers and pandemics

Note that just because a disease kills a lot of people, this doesn't make it a pandemic. Many diseases, for example cancer, kill large numbers of people, but they are in fact a number of diseases lumped together for the sake of convenience.

Historical pandemics

There have been a number of significant pandemics in human history, all of them generally zoonoses that came about with domestication of animals - such as smallpox, diphtheria, influenza and tuberculosis. There have been a number of particularly significant epidemics that deserve mention above the 'mere' destruction of cities:

The epidemic disease of wartime was typhus, sometimes called "camp fever" because of its pattern of flaring up in times of strife. Emerging during the Crusades, it had its first impact in Europe in 1489 in Spain. During fighting between the Christian Spaniards and the Muslims in Granada, the Spanish lost 3,000 to war casualties and 20,000 to typhus. In 1528 the French lost 18,000 troops in Italy and lost supremacy in Italy to the Spanish. In 1542, 30,000 people died of typhus while fighting the Ottomans in the Balkans. The disease also played a major role in the destruction of Napoleon's grande armée in Russia in 1811.

Encounters between European explorers and populations in the rest of the world often introduced local epidemics of extraordinary virulence. Disease killed the entire native (Guanches) population of the Canary Islands in the 16th century. Half the native population of Hispaniola in 1518 was killed by smallpox. Smallpox also ravaged Mexico in the 1520s, killing 150,000 in Tenochtitlan alone, including the emperor, and Peru in the 1530s, aiding the European conquerors. Measles killed a further two million Mexican natives in the 1600s. As late as 1848-49, as many as 40,000 out of 150,000 Hawaiians are estimated to have died of measles, whooping cough and influenza.

There are also a number of unknown diseases that were extremely serious but have now vanished, so the etiology of these diseases cannot be established. Examples include the previously mentioned plague in 430 BCE Greece and the English Sweat in 16th-century England, which struck people down in an instant and was more greatly feared even than the bubonic plague.

Concern about possible future pandemics

Diseases that may possibly attain pandemic proportions include Lassa fever, Rift Valley fever, Marburg virus, Ebola virus and Bolivian haemorrhagic fever. As of 2002, however, the recent emergence of these diseases into the human population means their virulence is such that they tend to 'burn out' in geographically confined areas, or that their effect on humans is currently limited.

AIDS can be considered a global pandemic but it is currently most extensive in southern and eastern Africa. It is restricted to a small proportion of the population in other countries, and is only spreading slowly in those countries. If there was to be a true destruction-of-life pandemic it would be likely to be similar to AIDS, i.e. constantly evolving disease.

Antibiotic-resistant superbugs may also revive diseases previously regarded as 'conquered'.

In 2003, there were concerns that SARS, a new highly contagious form of pneumonia, might have become pandemic.