Devastating pathogen-borne diseases and plagues, both viral and bacterial in nature, have affected humans since the beginning of human history. The true cause of these diseases was not understood at the time, and some people thought that diseases were a spiritual punishment. Over time, people came to realize that staying apart from afflicted persons, and disposing of the corpses and personal belongings of victims of illness, reduced their own chances of getting sick.
Epidemiologists study how diseases affect a population. An epidemic is a disease that occurs in an unusually high number of individuals in a population at the same time. A pandemic is a widespread, usually worldwide, epidemic. An endemic disease is a disease that is constantly present, usually at low incidence, in a population.
Long History of Bacterial Disease
There are records about infectious diseases as far back as 3000 B.C. A number of significant pandemics caused by bacteria have been documented over several hundred years. Some of the most memorable pandemics led to the decline of cities and nations.
In the 21st century, infectious diseases remain among the leading causes of death worldwide, despite advances made in medical research and treatments in recent decades. A disease spreads when the pathogen that causes it is passed from one person to another. For a pathogen to cause disease, it must be able to reproduce in the host’s body and damage the host in some way.
The Plague of Athens
In 430 B.C., the Plague of Athens killed one-quarter of the Athenian troops that were fighting in the great Peloponnesian War and weakened Athens’ dominance and power. The plague impacted people living in overcrowded Athens as well as troops aboard ships that had to return to Athens. The source of the plague may have been identified recently when researchers from the University of Athens were able to use DNA from teeth recovered from a mass grave. The scientists identified nucleotide sequences from a pathogenic bacterium, Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi (see the figure below), which causes typhoid fever. This disease is commonly seen in overcrowded areas and has caused epidemics throughout recorded history.
From 541 to 750, an outbreak of what was likely a bubonic plague (the Plague of Justinian), eliminated one-quarter to one-half of the human population in the eastern Mediterranean region. The population in Europe dropped by 50 percent during this outbreak. Bubonic plague would strike Europe more than once.
One of the most devastating pandemics was the Black Death (1346 to 1361) that is believed to have been another outbreak of bubonic plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It is thought to have originated initially in China and spread along the Silk Road, a network of land and sea trade routes, to the Mediterranean region and Europe, carried by rat fleas living on black rats that were always present on ships. The Black Death reduced the world’s population from an estimated 450 million to about 350 to 375 million. Bubonic plague struck London hard again in the mid-1600s (see the figure below). In modern times, approximately 1,000 to 3,000 cases of plague arise globally each year. Although contracting bubonic plague before antibiotics meant almost certain death, the bacterium responds to several types of modern antibiotics, and mortality rates from plague are now very low.
Learn more from this website about the modern understanding of the Black Death—bubonic plague in Europe during the 14th century.
Migration of Diseases to New Populations
Over the centuries, Europeans tended to develop genetic immunity to endemic infectious diseases, but when European conquerors reached the western hemisphere, they brought with them disease-causing bacteria and viruses, which triggered epidemics that completely devastated populations of Native Americans, who had no natural resistance to many European diseases. It has been estimated that up to 90 percent of Native Americans died from infectious diseases after the arrival of Europeans, making conquest of the New World a foregone conclusion.