This shows the hospital where patients with the Spanish Flu were brought. Right after World War One, the influenza virus spread across the entire world. Pandemics like these can affect every aspect of human society. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout history, many diseases have swept through human populations, sometimes on a small scale, and sometimes on a much larger scale. When talking about this spread of disease two words are brought up, epidemic and pandemic. While an epidemic is the spread of a certain disease in a community, pandemic refers to the spread of a disease that affects a much larger group like a specific country or continent, or sometimes the entire world. Many history classes study the big pandemics that have happened, and this continued fascination brings up the question: Why do we study these diseases that aren’t affecting us today? Rachel Draper, one of the AP World History teachers at Franklin, says, “It helps to understand the history of [diseases] and then what their effects are after. Do they cause an economy in a country to go down afterwards? Does it cause the global economy of the world to go down? How does it affect trade?”

Major pandemics affect entire communities and how people function day to day. During the mid 14th century, an outbreak of the plague started spreading. By the end it had transformed a large part of the European and Asian continents. This disease spread by animal, specifically fleas transmitting the infection while traveling on rats. It then spread across the continents through trade. Referred to by many as the Black Death or Bubonic Plague, it completely changed how people lived. People were not able to track this disease. During the 14th century nobody knew how or why this disease was spreading. Not knowing how to protect yourself from a disease can cause panic. Erin McCracken Ferro, a biology teacher at Franklin, explains, “They didn’t even know what bacteria and cells were.” This lack of knowledge allowed the disease to become a huge pandemic which ended up killing around 25 million people.

The more interactions we have with the rest of the world, the higher the chances of diseases spreading quickly once they appear. At the end of World War I, from 1918 to 1919, another disease spread named the Spanish Flu. This later became a pandemic and affected people all around the world, killing in between 20 million to 50 million people. World War I was one of the first times in history where the entire world was connected. Soldiers from around the world fought together, sharing diseases as they went. The Spanish Flu was one of these diseases, and after the war, soldiers brought this home with them. Although technology was more advanced than in the 14th century, they were still not prepared for such a large pandemic.  

Diseases most severely affect those with weaker immune systems, anyone with other health problems, the elderly and the young. With pandemics like the Balck Death or Spanish Flu, the entire population was affected. Information wasn’t readily available. “Now we have access to live information about updates on the disease which help in disease prevention,” Ferro explains. These updates help the public stay informed on what’s happening, provide new information about the disease, and help prevent the continued spread of the disease.

As we continue to study the effects of pandemics throughout history, many wonder why we still talk about it. “If currently there’s a new outbreak of something how can we respond differently than 50 years ago, or 100 years ago? What caused that to be so deadly? Was it because people didn’t understand how it was transmitted?” Draper says. We learn from history and the spread of disease is no different. By learning from the past, we are better prepared for the spread of disease today.

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