Comparing the Wuhan Coronavirus to 6 Other Deadly Outbreaks

We take a look at recent similar outbreaks, as well as the worst epidemics in history.
Chris Young

Epidemics and outbreaks have long been a problem that can bring societies to a standstill and cause panic throughout the world. The Wuhan coronavirus, which has been officially named Covid-19 and declared a global emergency by the WHO, is currently doing just that.

Though the figures and the nature of the Wuhan coronavirus are worrying, it's important to put them in perspective. As Dr. Mark Parrish, regional medical director for International SOS told The Independent, “a 2 percent death rate for this virus is lower than 35 percent for coronavirus when it mutated into the Middle East respiratory virus, which is still happening, and 10 percent for Sars."

To put things even further into perspective here is a comparison between the Wuhan coronavirus and some of the worst outbreaks and epidemics in history.


Putting the Wuhan Coronavirus in perspective

The current numbers for the Wuhan coronavirus show that there are 43,105 confirmed cases worldwide, with 1,018 confirmed deaths. So far, the vast majority of cases are in China, with only two deaths having occurred outside of the country — one in Hong Kong and the other in the Philippines. Of the 42,638 confirmed cases in China, 3,396 patients have been cured and discharged.

Comparing the Wuhan Coronavirus to 6 Other Deadly Outbreaks
Young people wearing surgical masks in the subway in Shanghai, Source: Robert Wei/iStock

Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) have today arrived in China to assist with controlling the coronavirus and building a team to tackle the problem where it originated and is having the worst effects.

The worst epidemics in history

Below, we take a look at some of the worst epidemics in history, as well as more recent outbreaks and how they have been tackled by global health organizations.

1. Plague of Justinian (541-542 AD)

The Plague of Justinian is responsible for the largest amount of lives lost from an epidemic in recorded history. Estimates say that approximately 100 million people died from it. At the time, this was half the human population of Earth.

The plague was able to spread so quickly because it was carried via fleas that traveled on the backs of rats. These rodents traveled the world on trading ships causing the disease to spread from China to Northern Africa, before spreading throughout the countries surrounding the Meditteranean Sea. Thousands of people died on a daily basis at the peak of the deadly plague.

2. The Black Plague (1347-1351)

The famous Black Plague, also known as the Pestilence or the Black Death, took the lives of 50 million people. The outbreak, once again, started in Asia and was spread throughout the world on rats carrying infected fleas. Once it spread to Europe, the continent lost 60% of its population.

Comparing the Wuhan Coronavirus to 6 Other Deadly Outbreaks
The masks worn by doctors at the time of the Black Plague, Source: Kuma Kum/Unsplash

The disease had an 80% death rate after 6 to 10 days and was spread via blood and airborne droplets. Unfortunately, a lack of understanding about what caused the plague led to the persecution of the Jewish population by Christians, who believed the Jewish population had poisoned the water wells. Agricultural shortages caused by the disease led to widespread malnutrition and hunger.

3. HIV/AIDS (1960-present)

The HIV/AIDS pandemic began in 1960 and continues to this day. However, as World Atlas points out, the hysteria surrounding the disease was at its peak in the 1980s when the world first became informed about its existence. 

Up to today, the virus has caused the death of 39 million people. A large number of unexplained immune deficiencies, rapidly advancing cancers, and rare lung diseases in gay men originally led researchers to believe the virus was spread only by same-sex intercourse. However, in 1983, it was discovered that transmission also occurred via heterosexual activity as well. Treatment first became available for people with HIV/AIDS in 1987.

Today, there are about 37 million people living with HIV. Access to antiretroviral medicines has greatly extended life expectancy. At least 68% of all global HIV/AIDS infections are found in Sub-Saharan Africa, due in large part to poor economic conditions and a lack of sex education.

More recent outbreaks

Here are a few more recent outbreaks that have taken lives and spread throughout populations. While the Wuhan coronavirus has surpassed the death toll of both SARS and MERS, SARS has been contained and MERS has seen a great decline in cases and deaths since it was discovered. They are proof that a global concerted effort can effectively reduce or contain incidents of a spreading virus.

SARS and MERS were successfully dealt with largely by using measures that are being used today to stop the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus; namely, travel restrictions and the quarantine of patients.

4. SARS (2003)

The Wuhan coronavirus is part of a large family of viruses that can cause infections, including the common cold. One of the more deadly of these was SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which was declared contained in 2003, a year after it was discovered.

All person-to-person transmission of SARS ceased, thanks largely to the fact that it is most infectious late at a later stage in patients' illness. This meant that isolation and quarantine was an effective method for sending the virus into hiding.

The disease killed about 775 people in 29 countries, meaning that the Wuhan coronavirus has already surpassed the death toll for SARS. Much like the Wuhan coronavirus, SARS originated in China, where the country's officials have been criticized in both cases for not alerting world health authorities sooner. There is currently no known cure for SARS.

5. Ebola (1976-present)

The Ebola virus originated in sub-Saharan Africa and is a serious viral infection. The virus, which was first detected in 1976 in an outbreak near the Ebola River in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, has one striking similarity to the Wuhan coronavirus. Ebola is thought to have originated in bats. In the case of Ebola, the virus is specifically thought to have come from fruit bats — a local delicacy where the outbreak started.

Comparing the Wuhan Coronavirus to 6 Other Deadly Outbreaks
The Ebola virus under a microscope, Source: Henrik5000/iStock

Unlike the Wuhan coronavirus, Ebola is not an airborne disease. It is impossible for a person to become infected by breathing in the same air as a patient. Instead, infection occurs via direct contact with bodily fluids of someone with the virus.

Recent outbreaks of Ebola have caused spikes in deaths from the virus. It is responsible for the deaths of approximately 11,325 people in the two years between 2014 and2016.

6. MERS (2012-present)

In 2012, a novel coronavirus that had not previously been seen in humans was detected for the first time in a patient in Saudi Arabia. Since then, the coronavirus, which is now known as MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), has killed approximately 858 people.

The virus is thought to have originated in camels. Thankfully, as the WHO points out, improved infection prevention and efforts to reduce human-to-human transmission have greatly lowered the number of deaths from MERS since 2016.

The fact that the Wuhan coronavirus, or Covid-19, has surpassed the death toll of SARS and MERS is, of course, a worrying sign. However, it's important to bear in mind that, relatively, speaking those outbreaks have a low death toll. That is thanks in large part to the efforts made by global health organizations — the same ones that are now dealing with the outbreak that originated in Wuhan.

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