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The history of humans fighting infectious diseases, and the development of science and technology

Photo by Brodie Vissers from Burst


The world has been through a pretty rough time over the last couple of years. The COVID-19 pandemic has come like a bolt from the blue for many people, taking over our daily lives and changing the way we live. Protecting our heath and the health of those we hold closest has become our number one priority as a species. We have seen social distancing measures, the widespread use of facemasks and lockdowns become the tools used to tackle the spread of the virus and its variants. But let’s be clear – this isn’t the first time we’ve had to fight infectious diseases on a mass scale. In this article, we will look at the historic pandemics and how these have affected mankind.

Ancient history (6,000 BCE – 650 CE)

The Athenian Plague of 430 BC

During the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens, a plague that originated in Ethiopia took the lives of more than a quarter of the overcrowded city state of Athens. Symptoms were described as headaches, a fever, rashes followed by the victim coughing up blood. Survivors were left blind and those who tended to them would more often than not catch the disease too. Even the city’s cherished leader Pericles died from the Athenian Plague.

The Antonine Plague

This plague was better documented by doctors of the time. Like the Athenian Plague, we are unable to 100% verify the actual medical nature of the plague, but it is now believed to be smallpox. And this wasn’t contained to a small city, decimating the Roman Army and taking the life of a third of some populations. It has been linked to the fall of the Roman Empire, such was the strength of the Antonine Plague.

Post-classical history (500 – 1500)

The Justinian Plague

Caravan trading routes took this plague from East Africa all the way across to Asia Minor, Egypt and Western Europe. It was particularly prevalent in trading ports. Like the Bubonic Plague, buboes appeared in the armpits of victims. Doctors lanced the buboes in an innovative attempt to cure the patient after witnessing people survive from ruptured buboes. Digging huge pits for the dead was another methodology used to stop the spread of the Justinian Plague.

The Black Death

Known simply as ‘The Plague,’ this spread along trading routes from China with some estimates putting the death toll at around 150 million – around a third of the population of the planet at the time. An innovation known as ‘Plague Doctors’ were employed, initially to monitor the death toll and carry out autopsies. We learned a great deal about human anatomy at this time.

It was during these times that quarantine first became a recognised way of halting transmission. The first recorded quarantine was in what we now call Dubrovnik in 1377. Anyone arriving in the city had to stay on the nearby island of Lokrum for 40 days, hence the term quarantine from the word ‘quarenta,’ which means, ‘forty.’

Modern history (1500 – present)

Modern history is when we start to see major science and tech solutions to fighting pandemics. In this field, science and tech have been used to understand the diseases and to either eradicate them or alleviate the symptoms. For example, Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine in 1796. Which directly led to the complete eradication of the disease in 1979, when it was officially announced that the world population was free of it. In more modern times, we have seen advances in terms of vaccines and innovative surface protection that change the way we live for the better.

Spanish Flu Pandemic

As modern medicine was on the rise, Spanish Flu provided the first test of its efficacy. We had specialist doctors in areas of medicine such as epidemiology and infectious diseases. We still don’t know the original source of Spanish Flu but do know it is the H1N1 strain of influenza. As Word War I took armies of men across the globe, the disease spread quickly in the deadliest fashion. Here we see movement of people as a major factor in the spread of the pandemic.

Smallpox Outbreak in Former Yugoslavia (1972)

With a vaccine developed in 1798 by Edward Jenner, we tend to see smallpox as a virus of the distant past. But it is thought to be responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths in the 20th century alone. As smallpox hadn’t been diagnosed in Yugoslavia for over 30 years, physicians failed to spot the disease from the symptoms of a victim who returned home with the virus after a trip to the Middle East. The dictatorial state ordered compulsory vaccinations for all people and martial law. It only took 2 months to eradicate the disease.

HIV Pandemic

The first pandemic where mass media coverage was a factor in saving lives. It causes around a million deaths worldwide every year, the total since 1981 standing at around 40 million. This is where modern medicine really kicked in, with innovative treatments allowing people to survive and manage the disease through solutions such as protease inhibitors and anti-retrovirals. This is the first multimedia pandemic, and the combined work of media outlets and doctors has saved millions of lives – with much further to go, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.


Again, a pandemic of the media age. It started in China, only affecting around 10,000 people but spread to other parts of the world. Public health systems kicked into action and put a quick stop to the spread of the SARS virus. This is the first pandemic where the mental health issues linked to it were studied, providing innovative breakthroughs on how we support both patients and healthcare providers who are on the front line. As an airborne virus, SARS can attach to surfaces such as door handles. And we can counter this by disinfecting door handles, while innovative companied are making them out of less-transmittable materials.

Swine Flu H1N1/09

In 2009 we saw a reprise of the H1N1 virus that caused the Spanish Flu. Starting in Mexico, we saw a huge rise and quick fall of this pandemic. It infected around a tenth of the entire population of the planet. It disproportionately affected younger people. This pandemic caused mass panic, which was subsequently said to have been manufactured to sell pharmaceutical solutions. This is where innovations on disseminating information to the public and managing information have proved effective in the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Ebola Outbreak

The likely cause has been put down to fruit bats in Central and West Africa. It spread among families initially before mass outbreaks in Sierra Leone and Liberia claiming over 28,000 cases, leaving more than 11,000 dead. When someone from Liberia fell ill in Texas, containment measures were introduced by the military and public health services to contain the spread of the virus. These efforts were successful.

ZIKA Virus

Found in rhesus monkeys in Uganda, ZIKA virus causes illness in people and birth defects in their children. Again, this was a virus where innovation enabled researchers to monitor the spread of the virus and the symptoms – this time though social media feeds. Physicians were able to provide both medial and emotional support to victims of the virus through gathering this mass data.

A virus spread by mosquitoes, ZIKA can be countered by the use of repellents containing DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) and sleeping under a mosquito net – with innovative solutions that are changing the lives of millions.

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