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Deadly outbreaks: Some of the worst epidemics of the last 100 years


  • Elena Trapp
When it comes to recent history, how does the COVID-19 pandemic relate to other outbreaks that resonated on a global scale? Though we don’t yet know what the novel coronavirus’ ultimate toll will be, we took a look back through the last 100 years for context’s sake.

(Note: The word “epidemic” is used to refer to a disease spreading rapidly within a certain population or region. “Pandemic” refers to a disease with global spread, and we’ll use it here only for diseases that health officials have declared as such.

1918-1919 flu pandemic

This flu pandemic (often called the Spanish flu, though experts don’t agree on where it originated) broke out during the climax of World War I. It was the deadliest pandemic in recent history, killing more than double the number of people who died in the war.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 500 million people worldwide — one-third of the global population — became infected with an influenza virus called H1N1, which originated in birds. At least 50 million people, including 675,000 in the U.S., died.

1957 flu pandemic

  • Elena Trapp
Like the “Spanish flu,” the flu pandemic of 1957 originated in birds, but the 1957 so-called “Asian flu” was an H2N2 influenza A strain. It spread from East Asia.

Worldwide, around 1.1 million people died, including 116,000 in the U.S., according to the CDC.

1968 flu pandemic

The 1968 flu pandemic — sometimes called the “Hong Kong flu” — was caused by an H3N2 influenza A virus that came from birds. Around 1 million people died worldwide, according to CDC estimates, including 100,000 in the United States.

HIV/AIDS pandemic (ongoing)

Since the 1980s, 75 million people have been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, and more than 32 million have died of HIV-related illness, according to the World Health Organization.

HIV causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, which weakens the immune system by destroying cells that fight diseases and infections. The latest research suggests the virus originated as far back as the 1800s in Central Africa.

In 2018, 37.9 million people worldwide were living with HIV/AIDS and 770,000 people died of HIV-related causes.

Scientists don’t yet have a reliable cure for HIV. However, the virus can be controlled through antiretroviral therapy — which, if taken as prescribed, can greatly extend the life expectancy of an HIV patient, and can keep them from transmitting the virus to a sexual partner.

The AIDS pandemic is ongoing, especially in areas of the world where access to treatment is limited. But the number of deaths from HIV-related illness peaked in 2004.

2002-2003 SARS outbreak

Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, has been in the news lately due to its similarities to COVID-19 (both viruses come from the coronavirus family). SARS probably originated in bats, and first started spreading in Asia. It sickened 8,098 people, 774 of whom died.

2009 flu pandemic

The swine flu pandemic, which originated in the U.S., mostly affected children and younger adults. Younger people didn’t have immunity to earlier strains of H1N1 with echoes of this influenza virus, known as (H1N1)pdm09. Between 2018 and 2019, the CDC estimates there were 60.8 million cases of swine flu in the U.S. and 12,469 deaths.

Globally, between 151,700 and 575,400 people died, according to CDC estimates.

2012 MERS outbreak

Similar to SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome (or MERS) is a member of the coronavirus family of viruses. WHO had confirmed about 2,500 cases of MERS (the majority of which occurred in Saudi Arabia) and 861 deaths as of December 2019. The virus probably originated in bats.

2014 Ebola epidemic

Cases of Ebola virus have been documented as far back as the 1970s, but the largest epidemic so far occurred in West Africa in 2014. The outbreak began in the forests of southeastern Guinea and spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone, with 28,610 reported cases.

The fatality rate for Ebola is much higher than for influenza: In that outbreak alone, 11,308 people who contracted the virus (39 percent) died, according to the CDC.

2020 COVID-19 pandemic

Since the virus was first documented in Wuhan, China in December, there have been more than 189,000 354,000 cases of COVID-19 and 7,500 15,400 deaths as of March 17 March 23, according to data from the World Health Organization. That includes more than 5,140 35,500 cases and 91 473 deaths occurring in the U.S.

On March 11, President Donald Trump placed strict limitations on travel from 26 European countries, and added the United Kingdom and Ireland to those restrictions on March 14.

It’s still too early to tell how quarantines, travel restrictions and sick workers will affect the global economy long-term. In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis’ March 16 decision to close restaurants, bars and gyms is likely to have far-reaching consequences.

Quick tips:

• In case, like many, you haven’t been able to get your hands on Purell, Tito’s Handmade Vodka tweeted that their products don’t make effective hand sanitizer. “Per the CDC, hand sanitizer needs to contain at least 60% alcohol,” the company said March 5. “Tito’s Handmade Vodka is 40% alcohol, and therefore does not meet the current recommendation of the CDC.”

• The CDC recommends washing your hands for at least 20 seconds to reduce the spread of viruses. If you’re tired of mentally singing “Happy Birthday,” other songs with 20-second choruses (per Twitter user @JenMonnier) include:

     - “Love on Top” (Beyonce)
     - “Landslide” (Fleetwood Mac)
     - “Raspberry Beret” (Prince)
     - “Jolene” (Dolly Parton)
     - “Africa” (Toto)
     - “Truth Hurts” (Lizzo)

• The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 2,900 points on March 16, its worst crash since “Black Monday” in 1987. All sectors suffered losses, but Bespoke Investment Group compiled a list of “virus stocks” that might do better than others. Clorox, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble — all of which sell health- and cleaning-related products — are just a few.

• Need an escape? The top trending movies on Netflix on March 17 included action film Spenser Confidential (No. 1), starring Mark Wahlberg; drama Lost Girls (No. 2), starring Amy Ryan; Outbreak (No. 3), a 1995 doomsday thriller about a killer virus (yikes!); and kids’ animated film The Angry Birds Movie 2 (No. 4).

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, health experts urge people to:

• Frequently and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer.
• Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash, or use your inner elbow or sleeve.
• Avoid directly touching frequently contacted surfaces, such as elevator buttons or door handles, in public spaces.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
• Stay home if you’re sick, and keep your children home if they are sick.
• Clean surfaces in your home, and personal items such as cell phones, using regular household products.

Helpful resources:

• For the latest COVID-19 information from CDPHE, visit
• If you have general questions about COVID-19, call the CO-HELP call line at 303-389-1687 or 1-877-462-2911, for answers in many languages, or email for answers in English.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the COVID-19 case totals as of March 23.

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