A Timeline of Plagues, Epidemics & Pandemics


The sudden rise of the incidence of disease or the sudden rapid increase in the number of harmful organisms, particularly insects (ref: Merriam- Webster Online).

When an outbreak spreads rapidly, as in the case of infectious diseases, and affects a disproportionate number of people within the same population, community, or region at the same time.

When an epidemic occurs over a wide geographic area.

A widespread calamity, infestation, or epidemic with a high rate of mortality. Can also be a reference to The Plague, which is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

An outbreak can lead to an epidemic, which in turn can lead to a pandemic.

Note: In the timeline below, I have distinguished between an epidemic (or pandemic) and a disease. For example, influenza is a disease, but there have been many flu epidemics. The number of deaths reported is for a particular epidemic. Also, I selected particularly deadly epidemics that killed a significant percentage of the population. Many epidemics have not been included in this list, as I have tried to pick ones that were historically significant and had approximate death counts. I did not include a separate listing for Native Americans in the U.S. because, although a large portion of the population died from smallpox, measles, and other diseases, they did not necessarily die from one particular disease with a death toll. This is in contrast to the Aztecs in Mexico who died of smallpox.


165–180 & 251–266
• Antonine Plague Possibly Smallpox: 60–70 million deaths1
(Europe, up to 33% of the population)

• Justinian Plague: 25–50 million deaths2
Bubonic (Europe, Asia Minor, Northern Africa, about 25% of world population)

• Japanese Smallpox Epidemic: Approx. 1 million deaths3
Smallpox (Japan)

• Black Death: Approx. 25 million deaths4
Bubonic (Europe)

• Mexico Smallpox Epidemic: 5–8 million deaths5
Smallpox (Aztec and indigenous)

1545–1548, 1576–1578
• Cocoliztli Epidemic: 7–17 million deaths6
Unknown (85% of Mexican pop.)

• Bubonic Plague: 2 million deaths7

• Third Plague Pandemic: 15 million deaths8
Bubonic (Mostly India and China)

• Congolese Sleeping Sickness Epidemic: 500,000 deaths9
African Sleeping Sickness

• Sixth Cholera Pandemic: Over 800,000 deaths10
Cholera (Asia)

• Spanish Flu: 20–50 million deaths11
H1N1 Influenza (Worldwide)

• Russian Typhus Epidemic: 2.5 million deaths12
Typhus (Russia)

• Asian Flu: 1–4 million deaths13
H2N2 Influenza (Worldwide)

• Hong Kong Flu: 1–5 million deaths14
H3N2 Influenza (Worldwide)

• HIV/AIDS Pandemic: 21.8 million deaths15
HIV/AIDS (Worldwide)

• Swine Flu: 100,000–400,000 deaths16
H1N1 Influenza (Worldwide)

• COVID-19: More than 480,000 deaths17
SARS-CoV-2 (Worldwide)

1. John Horgan, "Antonine Plague," Ancient History Encyclopedia:
2. John Horgan, "Justinian's Plague (541–542 CE)," Ancient History Encyclopedia:
3. George C. Kohn, Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence (Facts on File, 2001), p. 184.
4. Encyclopedia Britannica:
5. Rodolfo Acuna-Soto, et al., "Megadrought and Megadeath in 16th Century Mexico," Emerging Infectious Diseases (April 2002):; Kohn (note 2), p. 224.
6. Ibid.
7. Kohn (note 2), pp. 256–257.
8. Josh Sanburn, "The Third Plague Pandemic" TIME (Oct. 26, 2010): http://content.time.
com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2027479_2027486_2027498,00. html; Kohn (note 2), pp. 268, 269. 9. Kohn (note 2), p. 66.
10. Kohn (note 2), pp. 16, 17.
11. WHO, "Past Pandemics":
12. K. D. Patterson, "Typhus and its control in Russia, 1870–1940," Medical History (October 1993):; Kohn (note 2), pp. 290, 291.
13. WHO, "Past Pandemics" (note 11).
14. WHO, "Past Pandemics" (note 11).
15. Kohn (note 2), pp. 140, 141.
16. WHO, "Past Pandemics" (note 11).
17. Johns Hopkins University & Medicine, Coronavirus Resource Center (as of June 25, 2020):

has an M.S. in chemistry from the University of Texas at Dallas, and an M.A. in bioethics from Trinity International University. She resides in Dallas and currently works as a freelance science writer and educator.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #54, Fall 2020 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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