In 430 B.C., a new and deadly disease—its cause remains a mystery—swept into Athens. The walled Greek city-state was teeming with citizens, soldiers and refugees of the war then raging between Athens and Sparta. As streets filled with corpses, social order broke down. Over the next three years, the illness returned twice and Athens lost a third of its population. It lost the war too. The Plague of Athens marked the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Greece.
The Plague of Athens is one of 10 historically notable outbreaks described in an article in The Lancet Infectious Diseases by authors from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The phenomenon of widespread, socially disruptive disease outbreaks has a long history prior to HIV/AIDS, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), H5N1 avian influenza and other emerging diseases of the modern era, note the authors.
“There appear to be common determinants of disease emergence that transcend time, place and human progress,” says NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., one of the study authors. For example, international trade and troop movement during wartime played a role in both the emergence of the Plague of Athens as well as in the spread of influenza during the pandemic of 1918-19. Other factors underlying many instances of emergent diseases are poverty, lack of political will, and changes in climate, ecosystems and land use, the authors contend. “A better understanding of these determinants is essential for our preparedness for the next emerging or re-emerging disease that will inevitably confront us,” says Dr. Fauci.
Worthwhile, interesting, thought-provoking article. In this era of fears about Bird Flu or some mutating reinvention of the Spanish Flu, they would rocket about our planet faster than any comparable plague in our past.
Governments, populations can’t and won’t prepare without knowledge of previous disasters.