It wasn’t until humans began gathering in larger populations that contagious diseases had the opportunity to spread to epidemic proportions. Infectious diseases have inflicted a great deal of damage throughout the centuries.
An epidemic is a disease “normally absent or infrequent in a population but liable to outbreaks of greatly increased frequency and severity,” or a “temporary but widespread outbreak of a particular disease.” A Pandemic is an epidemic on a very wide geographical scale, perhaps worldwide, or at least affecting a large area of the world. (Hays)
As humans expanded their territory, they came into closer contact with microbes they might otherwise have never encountered. By storing food, humans attracted scavenging creatures such as rats and mice, which brought more microbes. (Discovery)
Human expansion also resulted in the construction of more wells and ditches, which provided more standing water for disease-carrying mosquitoes. As technology allowed for wider travel and trade, new microbes could easily spread from one highly populated area to another. (Discovery)
Throughout recorded history, many towns, cities, countries and regions have been decimated by a particular epidemic – a high prevalence of disease attacking many people in a community at the same time. (Kohn)
In extreme cases, a single disease outbreak can have a signiﬁcant eﬀect on a whole civilization, as with the epidemics started by the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, or the outbreak of bubonic plague that killed 20% of the population of Europe over a seven-year period in the 1300s. (cornell-edu)
While the Hawaiian Islands are the world’s most-isolated, populated-place, exploration and trade in the Pacific – and eventually “contact” – ultimately exposed Hawaiʻi to the ills already circulating around the globe – and added it to the points of contact for the spread of various diseases.
The maʻi ‘ōkuʻu (believed to be cholera) struck the islands in about 1804. Some reports note about one-half the population (175,000) died, however, some feel that is quite likely that close to 5,000 Hawaiians died from it. (Schmitt) It affected Kamehameha and his planned invasion of Kauaʻi.
From 1818 to 1825, Don Francisco de Paula Marin recorded numerous occurrences of colds and flu among the Hawaiians, noting that people had died. 1826 saw an epidemic of coughs, congested lungs, sore throat, bronchitis and influenza. (Van Dyke)
As visits by whalers, traders and others increased, other serious diseases started arriving from Europe, American and Asia.
The measles deaths of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamāmalu in London in 1824, likely acquired visiting a large children’s home, was a forerunner of the devastating impact of measles upon Hawaiians 24 years later. (nih-gov)
Before 1848, measles was unknown in Hawaiʻi. Several epidemics struck Hawaiʻi in late-1848, beginning with measles and pertussis, then diarrhea and influenza. Measles arrived at this time from California, spreading from Hilo through all the islands; 10% to 33% of the population died. (nih-gov)
No one knows for certain when, where or how the smallpox virus first appeared on earth; we do know that it has circumnavigated the planet multiple times over many centuries, invading every place of human habitation. By the eighteenth century, smallpox was killing an average of 400,000 people per year in Europe alone. (ucpress)
Smallpox hit Hawaiʻi in 1853; the first case arrived in Honolulu, on the ship Charles Mallory. When the epidemic ended late in January 1854, the estimated number of islands-wide cases was 6,400 – 9,100 and an estimated 2,500 – 5,750 deaths.
A sweeping influenza pandemic passed through Europe in late-1781 and 1782. It was first noticed in Russia; then the disease moved from east to west. Millions of people, perhaps three-fourths of the population of Europe, fell ill in the first eight months of 1782. Deaths in Europe may have numbered in the hundreds of thousands. (Hays)
Influenza struck again in Europe in 1847 and over the next two years spread into worldwide impact. In Paris, between one-fourth and one-half of the population was affected; in Geneva, Switzerland not less than one-third. (Peacock)
At that same time, a succession of deadly epidemics struck the Hawaiian Islands. Measles, whooping cough, dysentery, and influenza raged across the kingdom. An estimated 10,000-persons died from these causes, more than one-tenth of the population. In total mortality, the combined 1848-1849 epidemic toll was one of the most devastating in Island history. (Schmitt-Nordyke)
The bubonic plague (“Black Death”) was first noticed in Hawaiʻi on December 9, 1899. Its presence caused pause in the opening months of 1900 and was on everybody’s mind, with good reason; the same disease had decimated a third of the world’s population during the fourteenth century.
The spread of plague on O‘ahu was traced to the railroad linking Honolulu with the plantation towns of Aiea, Waipahu and Waialua. The Honolulu epidemic was not halted until March 31, 1900, during which time a total of 71 cases of plague were diagnosed, leading to 61 deaths.
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe in the mid-1300s, and killing between 75-million and 200-million people. It was thought to have started in China or central Asia. It then travelled along the Silk Road and was probably carried by Oriental rat fleas living on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships.
Spreading throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, the Black Death is estimated to have killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population. All in all, the plague reduced the world population from an estimated 450-million to a number between 350 and 375-million in the 14th century.
The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than World War I, at somewhere between 20 and 40-million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe” the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster. (stanford-edu)
The influenza pandemic circled the globe. Most of humanity felt the effects of this strain of the influenza virus. Outbreaks swept through North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil and the South Pacific. The average life span in the US was depressed by 10 years. (stanford-edu)
The epidemics of infections diminished Hawaiʻi’s population from approximately 300,000 at the time of Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 to 135,000 in 1820 and 53,900 in 1876.
Death by disease continues. Today, according to the World Health Organization, across the world, every day 8,000-people die of AIDS-related conditions; about 1.7-million people die each year of tuberculosis; more than 500-million people suffer from acute malaria and each day close to 3,000-children die of this disease. (Kohn)
Every year, the human death toll from infectious diseases around the world far exceeds that from hurricanes, cyclones, floods, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, volcanoes, droughts and other natural disasters. (Kohn)
Influenza, cholera, tuberculosis, dengue, HIV/AIDS, malaria and other epidemic diseases have not gone away. The possible spread of disease epidemics has grown because of the ever-increasing human population, rapid international transportation and travel, disease resistance to medicines, insect resistance to pesticides and, occasionally, complacency. (Kohn)