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11 Biggest Epidemics in Human History

These 11 biggest epidemics in human history are responsible for more than 220 million deaths and an untold amount of misery.

Rarely a year goes by that some new disease – or a mutation of an old one – doesn’t get trumped up by the media as the next Black Death. Hantavirus, Ebola virus, and the Zika virus are just a few of the exotic names we hear on TV, followed by the dramatic prognosis of worldwide pandemics. Every year a new flu mutation occurs, sending scientists scrambling to devise a new vaccine that will stop it. Hollywood adds to the mix its own angle, with a veritable flood of zombie movies and TV shows, showings us what grim future awaits us.

11 Biggest Epidemics in Human History

Syda Productions/

While none of those viruses are among the Most Deadly Diseases in the World Today, they can be fatal and in parts of the world affected by them people die and suffer. But compared to millions killed by the biggest epidemics in human history, they pale in comparison. Those have largely faded from human memories and remain confined to history books. The anti-vaccination movement is an excellent example of just how fragile human memory is. Despite being eliminated in the United States in 2010 and being on the decline worldwide since the 1960s and the introduction of the vaccine, measles (as well as other Deadly Diseases Cured in the 20th Century) are making a comeback. Ironically, this time the most developed countries are affected since the anti-vaccine movement is the strongest there. There are no anti-vaxxers in Africa, India, or any other place where people remember children dying from preventable diseases.

One of the greatest catastrophes in human history was the introduction of European diseases to the Americas. Measles, smallpox, influenza, even bubonic plague devastated the native population in both North and South America, leaving millions of dead in their wake. Unfortunately, there aren’t any record indication just how many people each of those diseases killed, so we decided to leave it out of the list and instead mention it here, with two exceptions you’ll find further down the list.

We tried to find credible sources for each of the 11 biggest epidemics in human history and have provided a link for each source. However, it should be clear that for the most part, the epidemics death tolls are just estimates, albeit highly educated ones and made by the experts. The true number of deaths for the Black Death or Justinian Plague will never be known since the precise records weren’t kept and sources we have can be very unreliable. Even the reliable ones could hardly have had the information for anything going on outside their cities, or how many peasants have died from the plague in some far-flung corner of the Empire. Here is our review of the 11 biggest epidemics in human history:

11. Russian Flu

Death toll: 1 million
Year: 1889–90

This is the first of the big influenza epidemics that ravaged the modern world. It was also the first epidemic in a world that was connected and an extensive railroad network helped spread the disease immensely. The deadly virus only took four months to reach to New York from St. Petersburgh. For a long time, it was believed that the virus in question was H2N2 of the Influenza A, but recent studies suggest that it was the H3N8 strain that was responsible.