The number of fatal victims of the new coronavirus pandemic is about to exceed one million, far more than those caused by other recent viruses, but much less than the terrible “Spanish flu” of a century ago.
The count, which includes only officially registered deaths, is provisional, as the pandemic continues. But it is a reference to compare its devastation with that of other viruses, current and past.
– 21st century viruses –
The number of deaths caused by Sars-Cov-2 (the virus responsible for the current covid-19) exceeds that of virus epidemics that emerged in the 21st century.
In 2009, the influenza A (H1N1) epidemic, called “swine”, was a pandemic alert. Officially, it caused 18,500 deaths. This balance was revised upwards by the medical journal The Lancet, which estimated between 151,700 and 575,400 deaths.
The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic was caused by a virus that appeared in China. It was the first coronavirus to trigger a global panic, but in total it caused 774 deaths in 2002-2003.
Coronaviruses are a broad family of viruses that can cause disease.
– Flu epidemics –
The balance of covid-19 is often compared to that of seasonal flu. “Worldwide, these annual epidemics are responsible for about 5 million serious cases and between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In the 20th century, two major influenza pandemics caused by new (non-seasonal) viruses, the 1957-58 pandemic known as the Asian flu and the 1968-70 Hong Kong flu, caused approximately one million deaths each, according to retrospective counts, although they seem to have been overlooked.
But they happened in a very different context than today. Globalization has caused intense economic relations and people (and, therefore, viruses) are moving faster and faster.
If we go further back in the 20th century, the great flu of 1918-1919, known as the “Spanish” flu (also caused by a new virus) was a catastrophe: in three “waves” it caused an estimated total of 50 million deaths, according to data published in the early 2000s.
– Tropical viruses –
The number of deaths from the new coronavirus is already much higher than the fearsome Ebola, whose appearance dates back to 1976.
The latest outbreak of the “Ebola virus disease” killed almost 2,300 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between August 2018 and the end of June 2020. If we add up all the Ebola epidemics over the past 40 years, the virus caused about 15,000 deaths, all of them in Africa.
And this is because ebola has a mortality rate much higher than that of the coronavirus Sars-Cov-2: about 50% of patients die and in some epidemics it reaches 90%, according to the WHO.
But this virus is less contagious than other viral diseases: it is transmitted by direct contact and not by air.
Other tropical viruses, such as dengue or “tropical flu”, whose more severe variant can cause death, also have lower balances. This mosquito-borne infection has been progressing for 20 years and causes thousands of deaths annually (4,032 in 2015).
– Other viral epidemics –
Another killer virus, HIV-AIDS, for which there is no effective vaccine decades after its emergence, caused many deaths between the 1980s and 2000s.
Thanks to the widespread use of antiretroviral therapies, the annual number of people dying from AIDS has decreased since the peak in 2004 (1.7 million). In 2019, 690,000 deaths were recorded, according to UNAIDS.
AIDS, which can be treated but has no cure, has killed almost 33 million people since its emergence.
And hepatitis B and C viruses kill about 1.3 million people a year, mainly in poor countries, from cirrhosis or liver cancer (900,000 deaths from hepatitis B and 400,000 from hepatitis C).
The main source of data is WHO.
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