To Open The Sky
The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter
A Brief History of Pandemics, with Emphasis on the 2020 Version
Pandemics have a long history. The Black Death of the fourteenth century is well known — the veritable archetype of disease outbreaks. Spread by fleas carried by rats and other mammals, it entered Europe at the port of Messina in Sicily in 1347. It ended as many as 200 million lives in Asia, Europe, and North Africa, peaking in Europe (where the best records remaining were kept) during the period 1347-1351. It exists today, affecting some 3,000 people every year. It is extraordinarily painful, extraordinarily deadly, and has an extraordinarily short incubation period.
Fragmentary evidence suggests pandemics were common throughout human history. A house in a Chinese village was found to be filled with skeletons of all ages. The house was burned down about 5,000 years ago, and the village was abandoned. Multiple plagues were brought by European explorers to the Americas, beginning in the sixteenth century. Cities in Europe suffered their own plagues during the same period, fostered by crowding and poor sanitation.
Passing over plagues in Europe, I turn to America. A yellow fever epidemic struck Philadelphia in 1793, carried by mosquitos which thrived in that year's unusually hot, humid summer. A flu pandemic spanned the globe in 1889-1890, followed by an American polio epidemic1 in 1916, then by the so-called Spanish Flu (which was worldwide) in 1918-1920. Another flu pandemic was the Asian Flue of 1957-58. It spread from China to kill 1.1 million people worldwide and 116,000 in the United States.
Since it was identified, AIDS has claimed an estimated 35 million lives. No cure is available,2 but steadily improving medications allow sufferers to live normal lives with regular treatment. Today, about 64 percent of these live in sub-Saharan Africa.
In spring 2009, a new strain of flu called H1N1 came out of Mexico to sweep the world in 2009-2010. According to the CDC, it infected 1.4 billion people and killed between 151,700 and 575,400. The highly virulent disease Ebola ravaged West Africa during 2014-2016. Fortunately, it was not very contagious and infected only 28,600 people (with 11,325 deaths.)
From South America in 2015 came the Zika virus, another mosquito-borne disease.3 Its primary impact is on developing fetuses; it often afflicts them with birth defects including microencephaly — a stunted brain. It is still active, and its full impact will not be known for some time.
Which brings us to America's current outbreak of disease: COVID-19, caused by the virus formally designated SARS-CoV2. This is a worldwide pandemic, and a bad one. As of this date it has infected 1.4 million people in the U.S., and killed at least 90,000. Initially, it was found to affect the lungs, causing them to fill up with fluid so that oxygen exchange was prevented, bringing suffocation. Then other symptoms began to appear, and soon it was clear that this virus could attack almost any organ system in the body. (However, an overreaction of the immune system appears partly to blame.) Children and young adults were though to be immune; but a number of children have succumbed to strokes caused by swarms of blood clots, and in rare cases a massive inflammation similar to Kawasaki disease4 can occur. (Unlike Kawasaki disease, it is not limited to children aged 5 and younger.)
Neither cure nor vaccine for COVID-19 exists at present. Progress is being made (summarized in the table below.) However, nothing is expected soon.
Things are very much in flux with this pandemic, both on the scientific and political fronts. This page, therefore, is a work in progress. Until medical countermeasures are available, the wisest course is to follow the expert advice:
Beyond that, the best defense is to be well-informed. Below is a link to selected books and films (works of both fact and fiction) that should shed some light.
1 Polio continued to ravage American citizens until the Salk vaccine, developed in 1954, became widely available. The last U.S. case of polio was reported in 1979.
2 Two people have been cured of AIDS, apparently by something in their own constitutions.
3 Zika can also be spread by sexual intercourse.
4 Kawasaki disease is an inflammatory disease charaterized by high, persistent fever, "pinkeye," reddened tongue, and often redness of the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, which then crack and peel. It affects children younger than six. It has no known cause, but is thought to be mediated by a genetic susceptibility. In Japan, where it was first identified, it affects 124 children in 100,000; elsewhere it is less common. With supportive treatment, patients usually recover in weeks. Here is a clinical description of Kawasaki disease
5 A manufacturing error at Salk vaccine maker Cutter Laboratories led to the "Cutter Incident," in which live polio virus in the vaccine caused 10 deaths and 164 cases of permanent paralysis. See The Cutter Incident: How America's First Polio Vaccine Led to a Growing Vaccine Crisis and Deaths following vaccination: What does the evidence show? (Elaine R. Miller, Pedro L. Moro, Maria Cano, and Tom Shimabukuroa; Immunization Safety Office, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 May 2015)