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Unknown Illness: China, 3,000 BC

Much of what we know about the spread of disease comes from history. Let’s take a look at a few of the most infamous epidemics and pandemics of the last 5,000 years.

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Pandemics through Time

Pandemics have been around for a long time. They spread when people travel throughout the world. One of the worst pandemics was the Black Death. Traders in the mid-1300s brought spices from Asia to Europe. They also brought bacteria that carried the Black Death to Europe and other areas.

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Typhoid Fever: Greece, 430 BC

An epidemic in Athens, Greece killed up to 100,000 people over the span of five years. Around 430 BC, a sudden illness that caused fever, red and swollen eyes, and foul breath raced through the population. Overcrowding in the city caused the disease to spread quickly. Scientists today…

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Smallpox: Roman Empire, 165–180 AD

Between 165 AD and 180 AD, traveling soldiers carried and spread the Antonine Plague throughout the Roman Empire. The pandemic, which scientists believe was smallpox or the measles, may have killed more than 5 million people.

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Influenza: Roman Empire, 249-262 AD

A pandemic ravaged the Roman Empire from 249 AD to 262 AD. The Plague of Cyprian is said to have killed quickly, with up to 5,000 people a day dying in Rome alone. Today’s scientists think the pandemic was either influenza or smallpox.

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Bubonic Plague: Byzantine Empire, 541-542 AD

Traveling soldiers caused another of the world’s pandemics during the Plague of Justinian in 541-542 AD. The disease they were spreading was the bubonic plague, which was caused by a type of bacteria. Some scientists believe up to 10% of the entire world’s population died during the…

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Black Death: Europe, 1346-1353 AD

One of the most infamous pandemics is the Black Death. It was another form of the bubonic plague. It raced across Europe and Asia from 1346 to 1353.

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Polio: United States, 1916

In the early 1900s, a disease called polio began to spread within New York City and quickly became a nationwide epidemic that infected thousands. The disease primarily affected children, though teenagers and adults could contract it too. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt became ill with…

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Spanish Flu: Worldwide, 1918-1920

A type of influenza, or flu, raced across the world in a short period of time, infecting nearly 500 million people (1/3 of the nation’s population at the time) and killing an estimated 50 million people. The pandemic was called the “Spanish Flu,” but it did not start in Spain. Unlike other…

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