Deutschland: Journey through time, forgotten pandemics

With the current COVID-19 pandemic commanding global attention, now is a perfect time to reflect on how pandemics have touched and shaped Europe.

According to Merriam-Webster, an epidemic is defined as “an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time.” A pandemic is defined “as an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.”

According to, the Antonine Plague existed for 15 years from 165 to 180 A.D. and is known as the Plague of Galen. This pandemic was transmitted throughout the Roman Empire by soldiers returning from conflict with the Huns, who lived in Eastern Europe. Some believe this plague was one of the first appearances of smallpox. Deaths were estimated at five million. Among them were Roman emperors Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Symptoms included fever, sore throat, diarrhea and pus-filled sores.

The Plague of Cyprian affected the Roman Empire from 249 to 262 A.D. and was named after its first known victim, Thaschus Cæcilius Cyprianus, Christian bishop of Carthage. According to, he wrote about the effects of the plague. The plague is thought to have caused widespread manpower shortages for food production and the Roman army. Some believe this plague was due to smallpox, influenza or viral hemorrhagic fever. Symptoms included diarrhea, vomiting, throat ulcers, fever and gangrenous hands and feet.

The first iteration of the bubonic plague appeared during the reign of Emperor Justinian I in 541 A.D., and became known as Justinian’s Plague. According to, transmission began with rats and fleas which eventually affected half of Europe’s population. This disease weakened the empire economically, politically and agriculturally. Symptoms included fever, headache, chills, swollen or tender lymph nodes, abdominal pain and gangrene.

Throughout the 11th and 13th centuries in Europe, leprosy became prominent. Encyclopedia Britannica states “leprosy came to be referred to as the ‘living death,’ and often its victims were treated as if they had already died. Funeral services were conducted to declare those living with the disease ’dead’ to society, and relatives were allowed to claim their inheritance.” The disease was highly infectious. According to the Center for Disease Control, during this epoch the way leprosy was described is not the same as the leprosy we know today. Symptoms included rashes, dry or patchy skin, and swelling.

A second appearance of the bubonic plague, known as the Black Death, affected Europe from 1347 to 1351. This sickness spread to farm animals in addition to humans. It triggered chain reactions throughout Europe from wool to food shortages, and some individuals resorted to violence. According to, sanitation, public-health practices and antibiotics are now a more efficient way to treat the Black Death, which is still present with approximately 1,000 to 3,000 cases per year.

After Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, the Columbian Interchange resulted in European colonization that greatly impacted the indigenous people of the Americas. The interchange references the exchange of plants, animals, technology, and diseases. According to, the various diseases were: smallpox, chickenpox, cholera, diphtheria, influenza, mumps, measles, rubella, pertussis, yellow and scarlet fever, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, typhus, yaws, malaria, sickle-cell, gonorrhea, syphilis, bubonic plague and Chagas disease. In 1520 the Aztec Empire was destroyed by smallpox, which resulted in food shortages and the inability to resist Spanish colonizers.

The first of seven cholera pandemics began in 1817. Thereafter six more occurred, spanning 150 years. Cholera was spread through feces-infected water and food. According to, symptoms included diarrhea, fatigue, weakness, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, low blood pressure, loose skin, dry mouth, rapid heartbeat and weight loss.  According to, cholera appeared in India first and by 1830 it had reached Germany. In 1885, a vaccine was created.

In 1885, the third, and last uprising of the bubonic plague affected European society.

The Russian Flu was the first significant flu pandemic which began in Europe in 1889 and resulted in approximately 1 million deaths worldwide. According to, when scientists traced the path of infection, it was found to have followed major roads, rivers and railway lines.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 started in Europe and resulted in 50 million deaths. This flu was avian-borne and affected roughly 500 million people. According to, the pandemic was highly transmitted during World War I troop movement.

Between 1968-1970, the Hong Kong flu pandemic claimed the lives of approximately 1 million individuals worldwide. This pandemic was highly infectious and continuously mutated, which rendered vaccines ineffective. By September 1968, the flu reached Europe. According to, the death toll was so high in Berlin that corpses were stored in subway tunnels. In former West Germany, garbage collectors buried the dead due to a low number of available undertakers. In total Germany registered approximately 60,000 deaths.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, SARS, materialized in 2003 with 8,098 reported cases and 774 deaths.  It is a viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus, called SARS-associated coronavirus. The illness spread to more than two dozen countries, including Germany. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, SARS began with a fever greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit and other symptoms included headache, body aches, mild respiratory symptoms at the outset, diarrhea, and dry cough. SARS spread by close person-to-person contact through respiratory droplets, or when an individual touched a contaminated surface or object.

Swine influenza is a respiratory disease in pigs, which spread to humans. The CDC estimates between 151,700-575,400 people died during the 2009 Swine influenza pandemic. At least 125,550 cases were reported in Europe. Unusually, approximately 80 percent of those were believed to have been individuals below the age of 65. Seasonal influenza epidemics, traditionally result with 70-90 percent of the deaths occurring in individuals over 65 years of age.

The World Health Organization classified the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic on March 11. In Germany, the first case was recorded in the state of Bavaria on Jan. 27. The main symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. For the most up to date information for Rheinland-Pfalz, visit the COVID-19 page on