Nairobi News


World’s worst epidemics over the years

By Amina Wako February 3rd, 2020 4 min read

The coronavirus outbreak in China has put the world in panic mode and the number of deaths and those with the virus continues to rise with each passing day.

The virus — known as 2019-nCoV — has now been diagnosed in people in several countries beyond China. The suspected source of the virus is bats.

Coronavirus is transmissible between humans, stoking fears that it could become the next great global pandemic. As the World Health Organization (WHO) declares a global emergency, it is also fanning a pandemic of fear.

But this is not the first time the world has been hit by a deadly disease.

Some of these diseases have been eradicated while others, such as tuberculosis and malaria, remain endemic in many parts of the world, and HIV/Aids continues to blight much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Here are some of the worst epidemics throughout the ages.


Smallpox dates back to Egyptian civilisation times. The risk of death from contracting the disease was about 30 per cent, with higher rates among babies. Those who survived had extensive scarring of their skin.

In Europe, the disease is estimated to have killed 60 million people in the 18th century alone. Smallpox is estimated to have killed up to 300 million people across the world in the 20th century.

Smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 following a global immunisation campaign led by WHO. The last known natural case was in Somalia in 1977. Since then, the only known cases were caused by a laboratory accident in 1978 in Birmingham, England, which killed one person and caused a small outbreak.

One of the greatest effects of the 1882-84 epidemic in Kenya was that it nearly wiped out the Rendille tribe. Although population estimates pre-smallpox are unavailable, the epidemic hit them hard, nearly exterminating the entire population of the tribe in less than two years.


Tuberculosis (TB) is a serious infectious disease that mainly affects the lungs. The bacteria that causes tuberculosis is spread from one person to another through tiny droplets released into the air via coughs and sneezes.

TB has also been around for a long time — with evidence of the disease found in some Egyptian mummies dated between 3,000BC to 2,400BC.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, TB killed more people than any other disease, according to the Harvard University Library.

By the late 19th century, between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of the urban populations of Europe and North America were infected with the TB bacillus, and about 80 per cent of those individuals who developed active tuberculosis died of it.

According to WHO, TB is rare in wealthier countries, but is second only to HIV/Aids as the greatest killer worldwide. In 2012, some 8.6 million people fell ill with TB and 1.3 million died from it.


HIV patients have a much higher risk of falling ill with TB because of their weak immune systems, thus making TB common in countries with high numbers of HIV/Aids.

HIV, the virus that causes Aids (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) continues to be a major global public health issue. Around 75 million people across the world have contracted HIV while 32 million have lost their lives.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains the most severely affected, with nearly one in every 20 adults living with HIV, according to WHO.

According to the Healthy Nation 2018, some 1,493,382 Kenyans were living with HIV.


Malaria is still a major problem in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where around 90 per cent of all deaths from the disease occur. WHO estimates that in 2018, there were around 228 million malaria cases across the world, resulting in 405,000 deaths.

Malaria was once endemic in Europe but was eradicated during the 20th century. However, cases have reappeared in Greece since 2009.

In Kenya, 2,783,846 cases were confirmed in public health facilities in 2017 while the number of deaths increased from 2016 to 2017.

The disease is caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected mosquitoes.


Cholera is an acute infection picked up from contaminated food or water. It first hit Europe and North America between 1831 and 1832 but originated centuries before in India. Symptoms include violent cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Epidemics trickled out towards the end of the 19th century in Europe and the US, but continue to hit poorer countries. WHO estimates there are still three to five million cholera cases a year.

Here in Kenya, there was an outbreak in 2019 where 12 counties were affected.

More than 4,731 cases were reported, 222 confirmed through lab tests and 37 deaths were recorded.

Since 1971, cholera epidemics seem to erupt somewhere in Kenya almost annually. Outbreaks before 1989 had a fatality rate of about 3.57 per cent, but by 2007, the rate had risen to about 5.6 per cent.

The worst of them all started in 1997 in Nyanza Province and spread across Western Kenya. In 2009, an outbreak hit Kodiaga prison, killing over 30 people in less than a week. Some 274 people died that year out of 11,769 reported cases countrywide.


Polio or paralytic poliomyelitis is a viral disease that affects the nervous system and can lead to paralysis and death.

The disease reached pandemic proportions in the 1940s and 1950s across Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

At the disease’s height in 1952, some 3,145 Americans died from it and 21,269 were left paralysed.

The first outbreaks in Europe and the US were not reported until the 19th century.

Vaccines are now available against polio and there are hopes the virus will be eradicated within the next decade.

In May 2018, the Ministry of Health rolled out oral polio vaccination across the country for over 800,000 children under the age of five.

This is after the Kenya Medical Research Institute laboratory notified the MoH of poliovirus in the sewage in Kamukunji sub-county in Nairobi.
Kenya has been free of any wild poliovirus (WPV) circulation since 2014.

The ministry has reduced the number of children suffering from paralysis caused by polio from 350,000 per year in 1988 to 22 in 2017.


Influenza, commonly known as “the flu”, is an infectious disease caused by an influenza virus.

Between 1918 and 1920 a disturbingly deadly outbreak of influenza tore across the globe. One third of the world’s population was afflicted, with more than 500 million people losing their lives.

The Hong Kong flu of 1968 managed to take out at least a million people.

In the 20th century, three influenza pandemics occurred: the Spanish influenza in 1918 (40-50 million deaths); the Asian influenza in 1957 (two million deaths); and the Hong Kong influenza in 1968 (one million deaths).

This story was first published on the Sunday Nation