Spanish flu, H1N1, COVID-19: Here's a list of pandemic diseases that plagued the world

'This is not a drill': WHO urges the world to fight virus
A man wearing a mask as a preventive measure against the coronavirus rides on a train in Seoul, South Korea, March 5, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

With the new coronavirus affecting over 114 countries, the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday declared the new coronavirus disease COVID-19 a pandemic. It is the second disease to be declared a pandemic in this century since the outbreak of swine flu (H1N1) in 2009.

The spread of COVID-19 across the world in a span of less than three months, with more than 1,24,000 reported cases and over 4,500 deaths, is perhaps the reason for the same.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus while declaring COVID-19 a pandemic said that he was concerned about the 'alarming levels of spread and severity and the alarming levels of inaction' surrounding the disease.

Pandemic diseases have been reported in the world since time immemorial. The plague of Athens from 430 to 426 BC, Antonine Plague in Italian peninsula from 165 to 180 AD and Plague of Justinian in the Mediterranean area from 541 to 750 AD are a few of the earliest pandemic illnesses reported across history.


How is a pandemic different from an epidemic?

A pandemic describes a disease that spreads rapidly amongst people in multiple countries around the world at the same time. Only a disease which is infectious can be declared a pandemic. Widespread reporting of a disease or its fatality is not the criteria.

This is opposed to an epidemic, which is the rapid spread of an infectious disease to a large number of people in a given population within a short period of time, usually weeks.

An endemic, on the other hand, is a disease or condition regularly found among particular people or in a certain area.

Interestingly, COVID-19 is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.

COVID-19, which stands for Coronavirus Disease 2019, is the name of the disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. SARS-CoV-2 belongs to the coronavirus family with crown-shaped spikes on its surfaces. 

Here are a few pandemic outbreaks reported across the world in recent times.

H1N1- 2009

The H1N1 influenza virus or the Swine Flu was declared a pandemic in 2009, after it spread to over 214 countries and overseas territories or communities from Mexico. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, over 5.75 million people died during the first year of the outbreak.

Influenza (Spanish flu) - 1918

The 'Spanish flu' which infected over 500 million people, one-third of the earth's population at the time, is the most deadly pandemic reported in the last century. The influenza which emerged in 1918 during the World War 1 is estimated to have killed tens of millions of people.

Variants of the Spanish flu, including the H1N1, have appeared across the world in the past hundred years.

In a 1957 outbreak which spread globally from China, one million people were killed.

Another outbreak in 1968 took 1 to 3 million lives.

In 2003, A(H5N1) or so-called Avian Influenza highlighted how the virus could pass from animals to humans, but it did not reach the pandemic stage because it did not pass from human to human.

Bubonic Plague- 1855

The Bubonic Plague of 1855 which claimed the lives of at least 15 million victims spread from China from fleas during a mining boom. The plague made inroads into India and Hong Kong and was reported till the 1960s.

The Bubonic Plague was also known as the Black Death during its outbreak in Asia and Europe from 1331 to 1353.


Though the cholera is no longer treated as a pandemic in the 21st century, the acute diarrhoeal disease has killed millions in its seven outbreaks across history.

The first cholera pandemic which emerged out of the Ganges Delta with an outbreak in Jessore, India, in 1817, killed over a million people. The disease quickly spread throughout most of India, modern-day Myanmar, and modern-day Sri Lanka by travelling along trade routes established by Europeans.

The six other subsequent outbreaks were in 1829, 1852-59, 1863–1875, 1881–1896 and 1899–1923.

According to the WHO, the disease still affects around 1.3 million to 4.0 million every year, and kills 21,000 to 143,000 worldwide.


Since it was first reported in Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976, AIDS/HIV has killed over 32 million people across the world. Though the WHO has not officially, declared AIDS epidemic, many experts consider the infection a pandemic due to its spread.