Throughout human history, we have battled over a myriad of diseases that has threatened to wipe us off the face of the planet more than once.
In the days before modern science and medicine, diseases have been treated haphazardly that usually end up with disastrous results such as death or a pandemic.
Thankfully, as our understanding of the human body and medicine grew so too did our understanding of diseases that we were able to eliminate them to the point that many of history’s deadliest pandemics are now just a footnote in everyone’s memories.
However, that does not discount the fact that many of these historical pathogens are extinct. Many of them are lying dormant, patiently waiting for the right conditions to resurface. It also does not help that there is still a vast majority of regions around the world that does not have access to proper healthcare and medical assistance due to a variety of reasons that include poverty and conflict.
In this list, we are revisiting the 10 historical diseases that were the stuff of nightmares. Diseases that we have forgotten but may potentially return with a score to settle with humanity.
Making a debut on the world stage in the 16th Century, smallpox was an international epidemic that almost had the same scale as the Black Plague that preceded it.
A product of the variola virus, smallpox claimed the lives of more than 90 million Native Americans when the Europeans came to the shores of the Americas. It spread like wildfire in Europe, killing at least 400,000 people by the end of the 18th Century. Though a vaccine was finally formulated in 1796, the disease still spread and was only eliminated in the early years between the 19th and 20th Centuries.
However, while it may seem that smallpox is finally extinct, there have been recorded cases as recent as the 1960s when an outbreak swept the world, killing millions. The disease can easily be spotted by hallmark symptoms of body aches, high fever, and fluid-filled bumps that appear on the skin.
It was the disease that crippled Franklin D Roosevelt and placed him in a wheelchair throughout the Second World War until his death in 1945.
Polio was a disease that persists today in many countries, but it hit a fever pitch in 1952 when it infected and paralyzed more than 57,000 people in the United States alone through the disease may have existed a thousand years beforehand.
Characterized by paralysis and the crippling of the lower extremities, polio is a disease targeting the human nervous system, and infection is by way of consuming contaminated food and water. Though a vaccine was developed in the 1950s, there is no cure for it. However, since polio only affects human beings, widespread vaccinations since the 50s has almost driven the disease to the point of extinction despite the fact that poverty-stricken countries are still plagued by it.
Cholera was a disease that hovered over India for hundreds of years until it was introduced to the entire world in the 19th Century by way of European ships traveling to the country and back home. Mainly, infection is passed in through contaminated water and food. It exhibits flu-like symptoms that are accompanied by diarrhea and vomiting. Ultimately, a cholera patient dies due to severe dehydration.
Though diligent steps have been taken over the centuries to stop the disease from spreading, many countries still suffer from it to this day with the last recorded outbreak happening in Haiti after a deadly earthquake struck in 2010.
It has yet to be eliminated, and many health experts caution people on consuming food and water from unfamiliar places.
One of the oldest diseases, it has been referenced multiple times in history and the Bible as a punishment from the heavens.
This was a disease that attacks the skin and eats its way into a patient’s nerve cells. Caused by bacteria similar to that of tuberculosis, it is a disease that persists to this day across the globe. The United States, for one, has not been able to completely eradicate leprosy and many people struck by it usually get infected through armadillos – animals known to be infected with the disease – whether through eating it or keeping them on a farm where they are in constant contact.
The problem with eliminating the disease is that people most often get treatment during its later stages when it is much more difficult to manage. Though treatments are widely available, chances are, the extinction of leprosy is still too far off.
6. Typhus or Camp Fever
Practically non-existent today, Typhus or Camp Fever became an epidemic in the 17th Century and took the lives of 10 million soldiers during Europe’s Thirty Years War. Not only did it infect and kill many soldiers, but Typhus also spread in cramp and poverty-stricken areas in the continent.
The infection is caused by microbes and bacteria carried by lice thus making camps and overcrowded housings ground zero for the disease. Symptoms may be similar to the flu with fever and nausea at the top of the list. However, if left untreated, the disease can cause heat exhaustion in patients and, ultimately, complications that trigger organ failure.
The disease died out later on but saw a resurgence during the First World War causing millions of deaths in countries like Romania, Poland, and Russia.
In the 18th Century, physicians and doctors were notorious for not being able to properly identify a disease which led to mistreatment and even the death of patients.
Such is the case with a bizarre disease called “chlorosis,” a sickness that targets women and affects their menstrual cycles, leaving them looking haggard and exhausted. Since doctors have little experience in treating women at that time, the 18th Century Medical Community was left baffled and at a loss for words.
Chlorosis persisted for two centuries until it died out. What is interesting to note about the disease, however, was that it was only an affliction that women in high society seemed to contract; no record of blue-collar women could be found infected with the mysterious illness.
Apart from exhaustion, patients would also fall into melancholy and their periods would completely stop. On top of that, the disease was easily detectable because it turned women, literally, a shade of green.
4. Spanish Flu
Also known as the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918, the Spanish Flu was short-lived, but in the year that it spread, it was able to claim the lives of about 100 million people worldwide.
This strain of the flu virus was brought home by troops at the end of the First World War, and it quickly became a global epidemic.
With symptoms similar to the common flu, it was the build-up of excessive amounts of fluid in the lungs that brought people to their deaths due to untreated complications.
3. Phossy Jaw
The Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century brought marvels to the civilized world as well as a collection of strange diseases.
One of them was a condition called Phossy Jaw; a condition that is caused by a specific line of profession.
Sufferers of the disease are mainly workers who spend long hours in a matchstick factory. Back then, matches were dipped in white phosphorus which allowed them to burn longer than their modern-day counterparts. The problem with white phosphorus is that it produces extremely toxic fumes.
Workers exposed to the chemical complained about chronic toothaches that eventually became infected and developed abscesses.
In non-terminal cases, patients would just simply have the infected jaw amputated and allow the area to heal naturally. Unfortunately for people in the 19th Century, they would continue to work in the factories and repeatedly acquire the disease that potentially killed many of them in the end.
The condition was first identified in 1858, but despite this, the use of white phosphorus was not banned until 1906, about 50 years after hundreds of people have lost parts of their faces or their lives to the effects of the toxic chemical.
2. The Black Plague
Call it what you want: the Bubonic Plague, Black Death, or Black Plague. It is one of the most devastating epidemics the world has ever seen and has earned its chapter in many history books.
Known as the first true pandemic on earth, the Black Plague cleaned out half of the world’s population across Europe and Asia in the 14th Century.
While many points to the poor living conditions and rising pest population in Europe as the main cause of the disease, the strain of the plague is still being researched by experts today. However, thanks to developments and strides in modern medicine, what happened in the 14th Century is unlikely to happen again since treatments are readily available.
1. Plague of Athens
If we are to be worried about the next deadly pandemic, chances are it is going to be the Zika virus. However, the virus only equates to the common cold compared to the mysterious plague that decimated Athens, Greece during the early centuries of its civilization.
The unknown pestilence hit Athens in the early years of the first Olympic Games and reduced a great number of its population into a messy puddle of sweat, poop, and blood. A historian called Thucydides courageously described the victims of the plague as they suffered from inflammation in the eyes, convulsions, diarrhea, and the vomiting of blood. It was a terrible scene to behold and to imagine. The plague was so terrible that, during the Spartans’ siege of Athens, their armies turned and fled at the sight of the diseased citizens.