The Pandemic Issue

and nearly destroyed each, the war continued right on. There was no thought of peace in this greatest of all crises faced by the human species.) There have been other great plagues since, though none to match the Black Death in unrivaled terror and destruction. In 1664 and 1665, the bubonic plague struck London and killed 75,000. Cholera, which always simmered just below the surface in India (where it is “endemic”) would occasionally explode and spread outward into an “epidemic.” Europe was visited by deadly cholera epidemics in 1831 and again in 1848 and 1853. Yellow fever, a trop- ical disease, would be spread by sailors to more northern seaports, and periodically American cities would be decimated by it. Even as late as 1905, there was a bad yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans. The most serious epidemic since the Black Death, was one of “Spanish influenza” which struck the world in 1918 and in one year killed 30 million people the world over, and about 600,000 of them in the United States. In comparison, four years of World War I, just preceding 1918, had killed 8 million. However, the influenza epidemic killed less than 2 percent of the world’s population, so that the Black Death remains unrivaled. […] Infectious disease is clearly more dangerous to human existence than any animal possibly could be, and we might be right to wonder whether it might not produce a final catastrophe before the glaciers ever have a chance to invade again and certainly before the sun begins to inch its way toward red gianthood. What stands between such a catastrophe and us is the new knowledge we have gained in the last century and a half concerning the causes of infectious disease and methods for fighting it. Microorganisms People, throughout most of history, had no defense whatever against infectious disease. Indeed, the very fact of infection was not recognized in ancient and medieval times. When people began dying in droves, the usual theory was that an angry god was taking ven- geance for some reason or other. Apollo’s arrows were flying, so that one death was not responsible for another; Apollo was responsible for all, equally.


Isaac Asimov on the History of Infectious Disease — And How Humanity Learned To Fight Back


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