Infectious illness is older than recorded history. As organisms, we humans are constantly susceptible to threats from viruses and bacteria in search of a host.
Here are just three among the many illnesses that have struck fear in humanity over the centuries.
Smallpox is a highly contagious, deadly disease responsible for 300 million deaths in the 20th century alone, according to the World Health Organization.
After a 14-day incubation period, flu-like symptoms give rise to a rash of red spots that morph into pus-filled, oozing lesions — lesions which also invade the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth. Victims who managed to survive were left with deep, disfiguring pockmarks all over their bodies.
Smallpox is an ancient virus whose origins predate history. Mummies from 18th and 20th Egyptian dynasties (1570–1085 B.C.) show evidence of the disease.
Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors unintentionally brought the disease to the New World, precipitating the eradication of the Mayan and Incan cultures. The decimation of native cultures was termed an “unpredictable grotesque torture” by historian Donald R. Hopkins.
Smallpox gave birth to biological warfare. According to Stefan Riedel, M.D., PhD., “During the French-Indian War (1754–1767), Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the commander of the British forces in North America, suggested the deliberate use of smallpox to diminish the American Indian population hostile to the British.”
In the 18th century in Europe, 400,000 people died of the so-called “speckled monster” annually. The last case of smallpox was recorded in 1977. Shortly thereafter, in 1980, it was declared eradicated by the World Health Assembly.
Two vials still exist under lock and key — one in the United States and one in Russia. In the face of a persistent threat of biological warfare, the ability to produce a smallpox vaccine is not lost.
Where there are rodents in large numbers and high density, there is the bacterium Yersinia pestis, or the bubonic plague.