When humanity united against disease

Story – Gautam Viswanathan

While it is true that the novel coronavirus is a disease that affects the entire world, humanity has actually faced down even worse pandemics in the past.

Diseases that once threatened us now have successful cures, and we have emerged stronger for it. At this time when awareness about proper healthcare and hygiene should be our number one priority, this story is about four diseases that have had a far worse impact than COVID-19.

During a time like this, it is important that all of us stay strong, and not give in to panic and fear mongering. That is the least that all of us can do right now.


Although it is now easily treatable with a course of antibiotics plague had, in the 14th century ravaged the population of Europe, decimating between 30 and 60 per cent of the continent’s population. Upward of 50 million people lost their lives to the Black Death.

The disease caused people to suffer from terrible fever, chills, head and body aches, vomiting, and swollen lymph nodes. With a mortality rate of between 30 and 100 per cent, the bubonic plague left a swathe of death in its path, and Europe would take another 200 years to stabilise its population.

According to the World Health Organization, “Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, usually found in small mammals and their fleas. The disease is transmitted between animals via their fleas and it can also transmit from animals to humans. Humans can be contaminated by the bite of infected fleas, through direct contact with infected materials, or by inhalation.

“Plague can be a very severe disease in people. Although plague has been responsible for widespread pandemics throughout history, including the so-called Black Death, today it can be easily treated with antibiotics and the use of standard preventative measures. Plague is found on all continents except Oceania but most human cases since the 1990s have occurred in Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Peru are the three most endemic countries,” WHO added.

“Untreated pneumonic plague can be rapidly fatal, so early diagnosis and treatment is essential for survival and reduction of complications,” said the UN organisation. “Antibiotics and supportive therapy are effective against plague if patients are diagnosed in time. Pneumonic plague can be fatal within 18 to 24 hours of disease onset if left untreated, but common antibiotics for entero bacteria can effectively cure the disease if they are delivered early.”


The only disease that bears the distinction of being eradicated by the World Health Organization, smallpox was met with great dread and fear before a cure for it was finally created.

One of the most devastating diseases ever known to humanity, smallpox was the scourge of the living for over 3,000 years, killing more than 300 million people in the 20th century alone. The last known outbreak of smallpox, however, was reported in Somalia in 1977.

Smallpox would bring with it sudden fevers, causing people to bend over double in pain, in addition to backaches and rashes that would break out within two to four days of contracting the disease. That, however, was just the beginning: the rash would spread across the body, before turning into pus-filled boils that caused great pain to those who suffered from the disease.

To suffer from smallpox was truly awful: while in this agonising situation, the patient needed to be kept in isolation, away from the loved ones on whom he/she greatly relied for emotional and medical support which would’ve greatly helped them during a time like this. The disease was fatal in up to 30 per cent of cases.

“Smallpox no longer occurs naturally since it was totally eradicated by a lengthy and painstaking process, which identified all cases and their contacts and ensured that they were all vaccinated,” explained WHO. “Until then, smallpox killed many millions of people. The speed of smallpox transmission is generally slower than for such diseases as measles or chickenpox. Patients spread smallpox primarily to household members and friends because by the time patients are contagious, they are usually sick and stay in bed; large outbreaks in schools were uncommon.

“When smallpox was officially certified as eradicated, in December 1979, an agreement was reached under which all remaining stocks of the virus would either be destroyed or passed to one of two secure laboratories – one in the United States and one in the Russian Federation,” added the World Health Organization. “That process was completed in the early 1980s and since then no other laboratory has officially had access to the virus which causes smallpox.”


A disease that mainly affects children under the age of five, poliomyelitis (or polio for short), has been the target of many eradication, awareness and immunisation campaigns by the WHO in collaboration with their local partners around the world, for one very good reason: children who suffer from polio can suffer permanent paralysis.

Should this paralysis affect their lungs, their respiratory system is forever immobilised, leading to the tragic deaths of those so young.

“Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It invades the nervous system, and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours,” said the World Health Organization. “The virus is transmitted person-to-person spread mainly through the faecal-oral route or, less frequently, by a common vehicle (for example, contaminated water or food) and multiplies in the intestine. Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness of the neck and pain in the limbs.

“One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis (usually in the legs),” added WHO. “Among those paralysed, five to 10 percent die when their breathing muscles become immobilised. There is no cure for polio, it can only be prevented. Polio vaccine, given multiple times, can protect a child for life. Wild poliovirus cases have decreased by over 99 per cent since 1988, from an estimated 350,000 cases in more than 125 endemic countries then, to 33 reported cases in 2018.”

In 1988, the UN adopted a resolution for the worldwide eradication of polio, and marked the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPIE), spearheaded by national governments, the WHO, UNICEF, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), and many other non-profit and national organisations. Following the setup of the GPIE, the number of polio cases around the world has plummeted by 99 per cent.


While doctors and scientists are still working on a cure for AIDS, the disease has so far claimed more than 32 million lives so far.

In addition, a further 37.9 million live with HIV, as of the end of 2018. However, efforts to spread awareness and treatment options to people who need it means that as of June 2019, some 24.5 million people have access to anti-retroviral therapy, which halts the advancement of the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.

“The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) targets the immune system and weakens people’s defence systems against infections and some types of cancer,” said the World Health Organization. “As the virus destroys and impairs the function of immune cells, infected individuals gradually become immunodeficient.

“Immunodeficiency results in increased susceptibility to a wide range of infections, cancers and other diseases that people with healthy immune systems can fight off,” added WHO. “The most advanced stage of HIV infection is AIDS, which can take from 2 to 15 years to develop if not treated, depending on the individual. AIDS is defined by the development of certain cancers, infections or other severe clinical manifestations.”

Over two-thirds of all people living with HIV live in the WHO African Region (25.7 million). However, between 2000 and 2018, new HIV infections fell by 37 per cent and HIV-related deaths fell by 45 per cent, with 13.6 million lives saved due to anti-retroviral therapy. This achievement was the result of great efforts by national HIV programmes supported by civil society and international development partners. – [email protected]