The Sentinel

Deadliest Plagues in History

Feb 9, 2023
Black Death: 75-200M (1334-1353)
In October 1347, 12 ships docked at Messina in Sicily, their hulls full of dead and dying sailors. By the time harbour authorities realised what the ships brought, it was too late. Over the next five years, the Black Death killed almost half of Europe.
1918 flu: 50-100 million (1918-1920)
Unlike COVID-19, which is deadliest for the elderly, half of the influenza’s casualties were young - in their 20s and 30s. In fact, in his book The Great Influenza, historian John M. Barry projects that as many as 8-10 percent of all young adults may have been taken out during the 2-year surge of the virus.
New World Smallpox: 25-56 million (1520 – early 1600s)
The outbreak seeded by first contact was catastrophic, but it was only the first volley. Waves of infection broke on the continent for decades. Whoever didn’t die of smallpox was killed by the imported influenza that chased the smallpox or the measles epidemic that surged in its wake. A mind-blowing 90 percent of the indigenous population perished.
Plague of Justinian: 30-50 million people (541-549)
The disease – now confirmed to be bubonic plague – reached Constantinople, capital of the Late Roman or Byzantine Empire, in 541 AD. It was soon killing 10,000 people a day. Corpses littered public spaces and were stacked like produce indoors. It was perhaps the first major outbreak of bubonic plague the world had seen and the record suggests that it extended across continents, reaching Roman Egypt, the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and the Arabian Peninsula.
HIV/AIDS: 27.2-47.8 million (1981 – current)
The number of people infected stands at around 38 million, with more than two-thirds of those patients living in Sub-Saharan Africa. UNAIDS estimates that 36.3 million people have died of AIDS-related illness – but with improved medicines and improved equitable access to those drugs annual AIDS-related fatalities have declined 47% since 2010.
COVID-19: 5-17 million (2020 – current)
17 million people are estimated to have died; many survivors have lingering symptoms. The risks of the pandemic – of the social and economic disruptions, the psychological toll on healthcare workers across the world, the deepening global inequality due to uneven vaccine access – are still resolving.
The Third Plague: 12 million (1855 – 1959)
It had never completely gone away, but the bubonic plague resurged violently in 1855. Beginning in Yunnan, China, it spread to the port cities of Guangzhou and Hong Kong by 1894. Outbound ships seeded burgeoning clusters in Bombay, Calcutta, Cape Town and San Francisco by the turn of the century. It didn’t stop there: before 1959, some 12 million people across the world – half of them in India – would be dead.