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Historical Perspective

17 November, 2015 - 11:56

There are records of infectious diseases as far back as 3,000 B.C. A number of significant pandemics caused by Bacteria have been documented over several hundred years. Some of the largest pandemics led to the decline of cities and cultures. Many were zoonoses that appeared with the domestication of animals, as in the case of tuberculosis. A zoonosis is a disease that infects animals but can be transmitted from animals to humans.

Infectious diseases remain among the leading causes of death worldwide. Their impact is less significant in many developed countries, but they are important determiners of mortality in developing countries. The development of antibiotics did much to lessen the mortality rates from bacterial infections, but access to antibiotics is not universal, and the overuse of antibiotics has led to the development of resistant strains of bacteria. Public sanitation efforts that dispose of sewage and provide clean drinking water have done as much or more than medical advances to prevent deaths caused by bacterial infections.

In 430 B.C., the plague of Athens killed one-quarter of the Athenian troops that were fighting in the Great Peloponnesian War. The disease killed a quarter of the population of Athens in over 4 years and weakened Athens’ dominance and power. The source of the plague may have been identified recently when researchers from the University of Athens were able to analyze DNA from teeth recovered from a mass grave. The scientists identified nucleotide sequences from a pathogenic bacterium that causes typhoid fever. 1

From 541 to 750 A.D., an outbreak called the plague of Justinian (likely a bubonic plague) eliminated, by some estimates, one-quarter to one-half of the human population. The population in Europe declined by 50 percent during this outbreak. Bubonic plague would decimate Europe more than once.

One of the most devastating pandemics was the Black Death (1346 to 1361), which is believed to have been another outbreak of bubonic plague caused by the bacterium Yersiniapestis. This bacterium is carried by fleas living on black rats. The Black Death reduced the world’s population from an estimated

450 million to about 350 to 375 million. Bubonic plague struck London hard again in the mid-1600s. There are still approximately 1,000 to 3,000 cases of plague globally each year. Although contracting bubonic plague before antibiotics meant almost certain death, the bacterium responds to several types of modern antibiotics, and mortality rates from plague are now very low.


Watch a video ( on the modern understanding of the Black Death (bubonic plague) in Europe during the fourteenth century.
Over the centuries, Europeans developed resistance to many infectious diseases. However, European conquerors brought disease-causing bacteria and viruses with them when they reached the Western hemisphere, triggering epidemics that completely devastated populations of Native Americans (who had no natural resistance to many European diseases).