Nothing is more important to people than health and safety. Before we meet all our other existential needs, we have to be able to guarantee that, at the minimum, we can survive. That means we have to live in a society that can provide us access to sufficient food and adequate healthcare, safe living conditions that guarantee housing, freedom from violence, and support in times of crises, be it natural or artificial. When society cannot adhere to these needs, the world experiences disasters and catastrophes. The following health threats illustrate how events in real life have threatened the existence of human civilizations for as long as history has kept a record.
Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana
Few hurricanes in the world are as famous as Hurricane Katrina. Considered to be one of the most powerful storms to come out of the Atlantic, Katrina hit Louisiana and then Mississippi with winds above 170 miles per hour, causing massive destruction in the southeastern region of the US.
Katrina started as a Category 1 hurricane that made landfall in Florida. However, the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico quickly turned it into a Category 4 when it made a second landfall in Louisiana. However, its real damage wasn’t in the winds it was packing. Not exactly, at least. Instead, it was in the whopping 10 inches of rain that it dropped over New Orleans. Pair that with the 26-foot storm surge that overwhelmed the coastal cities of Gulfport and Biloxi in Mississippi.
All of the water whipped up by Katrina eventually overwhelmed Louisiana’s levee system. It led to massive flooding that left some parts of New Orleans under 20 feet of floodwater. Many residents who couldn’t evacuate the city had to be rescued by choppers and boats days after the storm had already passed. Floodwaters wouldn’t recede until well over a month. It is an understatement to say that the city and the government were overwhelmed by the crisis that slowly unfolded in the storm’s aftermath.
Many lost their homes and some their lives. People experienced a shortage of food and potable water, as well as the lack of basic sanitation amid the bacteria-prone floodwaters. As a result, it led to a public health emergency that was previously incomprehensible to a resource-rich nation like the US. All of this eventually became a learning experience for local and federal officials. The lessons of Hurricane Katrina helped build better defenses and systems for other natural disasters that came after it.
While a pile of stinky garbage might be one thing you can expect from any major city with a large population, seeing scores of them left uncollected and rotting out in the open is entirely another. But that is exactly the public health crisis that the city of Edinburgh in Scotland faced this summer when hundreds of garbage collectors went on strike to protest pay disputes caused by a massive cost-of-living turmoil in Britain.
A crisis is what it is, seemingly on all fronts. Imagine the inconvenience and eye sore the public suffers when mounds of fly-infested food waste and diapers in varying stages of rot are out in the open.
Not only is it a gross sight and a nasty smell but think about all the possible diseases people are exposed to when the city does not properly dispose of this kind of garbage from the streets of Edinburg. What if the raw sewage leaks out into rivers and seas, with the latter prompting the government to warn against taking a dip into possibly contaminated water?
The problem of uncollected garbage isn’t the only crisis, though. It, in fact, exposes an even more sinister one – that is that salaries have struggled to keep up with rising costs due to inflation. If not addressed, it just won’t be garbage piling up in the city streets. It won’t be far-fetched to think that other basic services may suffer the same fate.
If there’s one thing we cannot live without, it’s water. It grows our food, cleans our surroundings, and provides nourishment. We can go for so many days without food but not water. So, if your water supply is in jeopardy for a long time, like what happened in Flint, Michigan, it isn’t just a problem — it becomes a crisis.
From April 2014 to June 2016, residents of Flint experienced a water crisis that threatened their health and safety when the city’s non-elected emergency managers decided to switch its water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewer Department to the Flint River as a way to cut costs. While cutting corners never bodes well for public safety, in the case of Flint, it became a full-blown disaster.
After switching to the Flint River, a list of red flags emerged. Residents had to boil water due to dangerous bacterial levels. General Motors declared that Flint River water was causing corrosion on its newly machined engine parts, and the incidence of Legionnaire disease spiked.
Public health experts eventually found dangerous levels of lead and copper in the city’s water supply. It was over 25 times higher than what is considered safe. Insufficient water treatment also led to low chlorine levels in the water. As a result, bacteria as able to flourish and wreak havoc in the community. All the health problems that emerged finally led the city to switch back to the DWSD. However, not without suffering the consequences of 18 months of dangerous chemical exposure.
When tragedy struck the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986, it was, at the time, the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever faced. One of the oldest nuclear power plants in the world, Chernobyl, was located just 65 miles north of Kiev. It is right outside the small town of Pripyat. A bungled experiment at one of the plant’s four reactors created a sudden power surge. As a result, the village of Pripyat bore the brunt of the blast, engulfing it in a shroud of radioactive material.
The disaster wasn’t contained to Pripyat, though. The highly toxic radiation that emanated from the reactor explosion spread throughout Europe. It contaminated millions of acres of forest and farmland. In return, the radioactive blast created a public health emergency whose true scope of destruction is still challenging to quantify today.
But back then, one thing was clear; the radiation in the atmosphere was several times the amount produced by the atomic bombs dropped on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was enough to kill all 28 people who suffered from acute radiation syndrome (ARS) in its immediate aftermath, as well as send over 237 people to the hospital, 134 of whom also had ARS.
Beyond Pripyat, it is more difficult to determine the health effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. A United Nations committee, however, found that fewer than 100 died due to the fallout. However, the most widely cited studies on the deadly effects of Chernobyl predict an eventual 4,000 deaths in all of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.
The September 11th Attacks in New York City, New York, and Arlington, Virginia
If there was a definitive image of the year 2001, it would be this: the two tallest towers in the world shrouded in billowing black smoke, standing like a beacon on fire before being reduced to nothing. The events of September 11th, 2001, will always leave a hole in the sky where the World Trade Center towers used to be before they were reduced to ashes by commercial planes in what is regarded as the worst terrorist attacks ever to hit American soil.
What happened in the subsequent days and weeks, as the world slowly woke from the shock of what occurred, was nothing short of a crisis. Reports detail how four suicide terrorist attacks came from militant Islamic extremists working with al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. They hijacked planes in the US. The first two planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, while a third hit the pentagon in Arlington. The fourth plane did not hit its target as the passengers learned of the other attacks, fought back, and diverted the hit as the plane crashed.
Over 3,000 people died in the coordinated attacks, a global war on terror ensued. Plus, thousands of people in the vicinity of the collapsed towers suffered from debilitating illnesses. How so? They suffer from the toxic dust that hung over downtown Manhattan in the wake of 9/11. Approximately 18,000 people reported having effects of the toxic dust. That includes rescue workers who have had impaired lung function. They are not likely to recover from the onset of symptoms significantly.
To this day, the death toll from 9/11 continues to rise as more people die from illnesses related to the terrorist attacks. As of September 2022, the New York Fire Department has confirmed a total of 299 firefighter deaths from 9/11-related diseases, while the New York Police Department reported an almost similar count of 247 among its officers.
Contaminated Water Outbreak in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
With the advent of water treatment technologies, waterborne disease outbreaks have become rare occurrences in the modern world. Nevertheless, we cannot completely eradicate them yet. Take, for example, the 1993 water contamination incident in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This outbreak materialized when two water treatment plants in the city became contaminated by the chlorine-resistant parasite Cryptosporidium parvum.
The result was nearly catastrophic. Over 400,000 people were affected and fell ill upon drinking the contaminated water, while 69 people, most of whom were immunocompromised, eventually perished. During the first two days of the outbreak, it wasn’t clear yet what was causing widespread illness in the community. However, a report of cryptosporidiosis was confirmed and fit the profile of most of the cases.
A boil water notice was in place for the following ten days. They thought the boil water advisory would help curb the cryptosporidiosis threat. This affected many areas of life in Milwaukee. Remember, water is life. Food production reduced significantly, and companies made recalls, while specific industries such as medical and pet care as well as food establishments were all crucially impacted.
While the Milwaukee water contamination is considered the largest waterborne outbreak in US history, such a calamitous event is not without positive outcomes. The outbreak led to a major facility renovation from 1993-1998. This move strengthened the barriers related to source water protection, disinfection, and filtration. It also led to an inter-agency collaboration between Milwaukee Water Works and the Milwaukee Health Department. The partnership is now lauded as an effective way of safeguarding public health via communication of critical information about water quality and contaminants.
The Covid-19 Pandemic in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China
Noone living in these times could have escaped the omnipresence of the Covid-19 pandemic. What once was a passing mention in the news has now taken over the headlines. Wherever you go, and wherever you look, the devastating effects of this global pandemic can be seen and felt even more so in such an interconnected world.
Originating from Wuhan, China, the Sars-Cov 2 virus first appeared in the dwindling months of 2019. There is yet to be any conclusion drawn as to how it jumped from bats to humans. However, this particular coronavirus proved highly contagious. It spread worldwide so rapidly that the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic in 2020, within two months of its emergence.
Covid-19 is a disease that is caused by the Sars-Cov-2 virus. It is a respiratory illness characterized by symptoms such as cough, cold, sore throat, and difficulty breathing. In its early stages, Covid-19 infected millions of people. It caused thousands of deaths, inundating both hospitals and morgues. That is, before the development of vaccines to combat it.
Now that researchers offered vaccines, and because of infection-induced immunity, Covid-19 is showing signs of slowing down. Sadly, not without causing over 600 million cases and 6.5 million deaths worldwide.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked great havoc worldwide and upended (and ended) many lives, it wasn’t the first pandemic to do so, nor was it the most devastating. Claiming the lives of roughly 20% of the city’s population, the Great Plague of London was right up there on the list of the deadliest pandemics in world history.
Also known as the Bubonic plague, this disease first surfaced as a legitimate pandemic in the 14th century with the Black Death. However, it rose again to superspreader levels in 1665 when the plague proliferated all throughout London. As a result, there were many casualties at catastrophic levels, giving rise to mass graves and the widespread slaughter of cats and dogs. People believe both of these were the plague’s primary engine of circulation.
If you ever get the chance to pick a time and place to visit, please avoid London in the 14th century. Thankfully, the plague didn’t last too long, as it had already begun to taper off by 1666, about a year after it first appeared.
Surprisingly, the Bubonic plague is still around today, albeit not at the same devastating levels as when it first emerged from Europe. It is around few communities in the Western United States, as well as in Asia and Africa. They still come into contact with the highly communicable disease. However, thanks to exceptionally effective antibiotic treatments, the Bubonic plague is confined to circulating in small circles void of the disastrous impact it had in the past.
If you want to know the deadliest pandemic in history, look no further than the Spanish Flu of 1918, an outbreak of epic proportions that killed more people than any other outbreak in human history. The death toll was an estimated 50 million people. Keep in mind, the world population was only 28% of what it is today. Most deaths occurred within the sixteen weeks between September to December of 1918. Extremely lethal is the only appropriate way to describe this pandemic.
The Spanish flu was clearly avian in origin. It is in the family of H1N1 viruses. However, where the pandemic emerged is still a matter of scholarly debate. Some believe it came from France, others from Asia. At the same time, another theory states it might actually have come from Haskell County, Kansas. That theory says it started in the US and spread with the arrival of American troops in Europe.
No matter its place of origin, one thing is clear: the Spanish flu was especially virulent. One CDC account stated that “victims of the pandemic virus experienced fluid-filled lungs, as well as severe pneumonia and lung tissue inflammation.” The combination of rapid transmissibility as well as severe respiratory damage, makes it the worst pandemic the world has experienced to date.
Many of us learned about the Spanish flu as a result of Covid. They wore masks and had many of the same issues regarding symptoms, outbreaks, and rules. I wonder if people felt that wearing masks violated their rights in the early 1900s, or if they called their neighbors sheep, or if they just listened without a fight.
Covid as we know it wasn’t the first pandemic to strike the people of Earth. Yes, it sounds like we could write a sci-fi thriller or something. However, in this case, it would be a documentary or at least a non-fictional film. Why? Because it’s true! Considered the least severe of the three flu pandemics that occurred in the 20th century, the Asian flu pandemic of 1957 came from the H2N2 subtype of the flu virus, which research showed was a mix of human and avian flu viruses.
Though not as deadly as its contemporaries, the Asian flu pandemic still wreaked significant havoc worldwide, with a total of about one to two million deaths, most of which occurred among children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Similar to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Asian flu virus originally circulated within China before making its way to the Western coast of the US.
It didn’t cause much trouble initially until a few months later when people started to get sick at alarming rates. By midsummer, it had spread significantly and was the leading cause of death in the Northern Hemisphere. Simultaneously, the virus spread in the United Kingdom, and by December 1957, some 3,550 people died in England and Wales alone from this flu.
The degree of severity of the H2N2 flu virus varied among its victims. While some experienced minor discomforts such as a cough or mild fever, others found the virus elicited in them a much more deadly effect, with pneumonia being a common, life-threatening condition resulting from infection.
Widely regarded as an offshoot of the 1957 Asian flu, the 1968 Flu pandemic that originated in Hong Kong was the third pandemic to ravage the globe in the 20th century. Its death toll stood at well over a million people worldwide, tallying about 100,000 deaths in the US alone. Similar to the Asian flu, the 1968 pandemic, also known as the Hong Kong flu, originated from avian. Its strain was the H3N2. The scientific community believes it actually evolved from the H2N2 strain. The H2N2 strain is called an antigenic shift. That means it can make small changes to the genes of a flu virus. Likewise, it can make changes on its surface proteins as well, proteins that trigger the body’s immune response.
These changes made the Hong Kong flu just as deadly as its predecessor. Even though most people already had the flu and were supposed to have become immune to it, the antigenic shift allowed the flu virus to reinfect its hosts. This is why health departments offer flu vaccines every year. Influenza has become endemic and will likely be around for a long time.
The 1633 Smallpox Epidemic in Boston, Massachusetts
The spread of disease was inevitable as Europeans began their period of colonization. This was the case when smallpox came to America and caused a significant outbreak that started in the Northeast and expanded westward.
Most Europeans were immune to the disease due to the overpopulated living conditions in the continent. Nevertheless, 20 settlers from the Mayflower were, in fact, infected when they landed on the east coast. The disease subsequently ravaged the indigenous population with symptoms such as chills, high fever, severe back pain, and rashes.
Do You Know Someone with the Smallpox Vaccine Scar?
Given the smaller population at the time, smallpox was considered a deadly epidemic. Doctors tallied a reported 6,000 cases out of a population of 11,000, resulting in a death toll of 850. A vaccine would eventually wipe out this disease. Before that, though, in 1770, Edward Jenner discovered that it was from cowpox. The vaccine was so successful that all traces of the disease are gone, and the vaccines are no longer necessary.
By 1972, the routine smallpox vaccine ended in the USA. Why? Because thanks to the vaccination, the country no longer had the disease. The immunization completely eradicated smallpox from the country. You may have a loved one with a classic smallpox stamp. It looks like a tiny circle, probably on their left shoulder.
The 1793 Yellow Fever Outbreak in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Fleeing from the slave revolution in the Caribbean, French immigrants arrived at the port of Philadelphia in the spring of 1793. They were unaware that their arrival would unleash Yellow Fever upon the city. The disease was so devastating that it killed nearly 10% of Philadelphia’s population. All throughout the summer, Yellow Fever wreaked havoc in the city. People suffered from fever and bloody vomiting. Plus, they exhibited the hallmark sign of yellow skin, for which the disease likely received its name.
Yellow Fever spread primarily through mosquitoes, which is why it was rampant in warm countries in Central America, South America, and Africa. At its peak, Yellow Fever killed over 5,000 people in just four months. Amid the deaths, plenty of people also sought to escape Philadelphia. However, the exodus was overwhelming enough that some neighboring cities refused refugees while some enforced quarantines. It wasn’t until the weather cooled that the outbreak abated, with the frost likely eliminating the mosquito population and the diseases it carried.
Have you ever played the old-school computer game called The Oregon Trail? Okay, they have newer versions of the game, and one way to die is cholera. It was common back in the day and is an ongoing joke on the silly (raunchy) movie A Million Ways to Die in the West. The situation was dire and the future was bleak.
This was the mood in the city of New York in July of 1832 when a mysterious, yet highly infectious disease started to ravage the city. It caused thousands to flee and many more to succumb to gastrointestinal infections. The epidemic was cholera, a waterborne outbreak that spread swiftly from India throughout the rest of the world. When it reached the shores of New York, it killed roughly 3,515 of the city’s 250,000 population.
Cholera is a bacterial infection that spreads through contaminated food and water. In the 1800s, when modern sewage and water treatment were yet to be a feature of most cities, lack of sanitation likely drove the disease to proliferate. It would be years before cholera outbreaks started to abate and eventually peter out in the early 1900s. Nevertheless, the condition still exists today, with about 95,000 reported deaths a year worldwide.
With cholera, immediate treatments are crucial to mitigating its more lethal effects. Widespread use of antibiotics, zinc supplementation, and rehydration can keep patients from worsening, while modern sewage, vaccines, and good hygiene have been key to keeping the disease at bay.
Living in a big city can be a glamorous experience, sure. Yet sometimes it isn’t all its cut out to be. With a large, often crowded population, cities like New York are prone to disease outbreaks. Case in point: not only has New York dealt with a cholera epidemic in the 1800s, but just a century later, it also had to contend with a serious outbreak of polio. A largely asymptomatic illness, polio spreads through contaminated food and water and can lead to paralysis and even death. When the disease overtook New York in 1916, it infected several thousand people and killed two thousand, primarily in the borough of Brooklyn.
Back then, doctors knew little about the disease, and the city’s primary way to fight it was through a combination of quarantines, public space closures, sanitation, and the emergence of special clinics to fight it. Polio eventually receded to oblivion with the success of vaccines. However, recently, doctors detected it once again in New York City, of all places.
New York just can’t catch a break on the disease front. As if dealing with cholera and polio wasn’t enough, the city also had to contend with a severe typhoid outbreak fever that was spread famously by Mary Mallon. Often referred to as “Typhoid Mary,” Mary Mallon was a cook on an estate and a unit hospital. During her time there she became largely responsible for spreading the bacterial infection to about 122 New Yorkers of which, 5 died.
The total casualty count during that 1906-1907 outbreak was 25,830, with Mary as the primary driver of the disease. Typhoid typically causes sickness and red spots to form on the chest and abdomen, and thought prevalent at the time, it is now rare thanks in large part to a vaccine developed in 1911 and antibiotic treatments in 1948.
Most of the pandemics the world has ever lived through have been catastrophic events, killing millions and drastically reducing the human population. But if there was a single pandemic responsible for the most death and devastation in human history, that title belongs to the Black Death. This bubonic plague ravaged Europe, Africa, and Asia in the mid-14th century. The plague was so widespread and devastating that it killed between 75 and 200 million people. It reduced the population of Europe by 30-60 percent. Likewise, the Middle East had a third fewer people by the time the plague receded out of circulation.
Yes, the plague’s origins are still uncertain. Nevertheless, researchers first found it in Crimea before spreading through trade routes to parts of Europe and Africa. Infected fleas living on rats were the primary vector for the spread of the disease. However, researchers believe that they eventually spread via aerosols making the transmission of the disease more efficient and, as a result, more deadly.
My kid, my choice? With so many recent advances in the health sciences, it’s hard to imagine widespread outbreaks of a particular disease in modern times, and yet that is precisely what happened in Los Angeles in 2010 when the city experienced one of the highest reported numbers of cases of Pertussis in more than 60 years. Over 9,000 cases of Pertussis or whooping cough at the time led to 809 hospitalizations and ten deaths. Measles and whooping cough came back with a vengeance.
Most of the patients affected were Hispanic babies younger than six months. Likewise, all deaths and hospitalizations occurred primarily among infants three months or younger. The government responded with tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccination drives in response to the unprecedented spread of the disease and to protect the youngest individuals. They also had public and provider education, as well as free vaccines for postpartum women and infant contacts. The world is yet to see the last of Pertussis. Fortunately, though, with vaccinations and early mitigation, we just might be able to drive it back into irrelevance.
The only thing surprising about being named “The Heaviest Drinking Metro Area” in a state known for having beer as its best product is that the title doesn’t belong to Milwaukee. Although they’re technically the “Brewers,” it’s that the crown sits on neighboring Green Bay’s head. About 26.5% of the adult population in Green Bay drink excessively, a number higher than the state average of 26.2%. In comparison, the standard for the country is only about 18%.
It’s not exactly clear if the excessive drinking rates in the metro Green Bay area create a particular public health problem. There haven’t been any studies linking the higher-than-average alcoholism to incidences of cancer, other illnesses, gun violence, or domestic abuse. However, there seems to be a link to cases of alcohol-related driving deaths. Studies show that about 50% of driving deaths in Green Bay involved alcohol consumption to some extent.
It’s already been five decades since Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson launched a united effort to end hunger in Africa. Who remembers their song “We Are the World?” Yet, the world is no close to helping African countries with food security. In Somalia alone, the most recent report by UNICEF paints a dire picture: worsening drought and famine could lead to malnutrition in children, with 1.8 million (54.5%) children projected to suffer from acute malnutrition and another 513,550 children likely to become severely malnourished in the coming months.
Add to that the rising number of cholera cases that compound the drought and hunger that the country is currently facing, and it is a recipe for disaster. The Somali government and other humanitarian organizations have been working with UNICEF to address this problem. However, the global aid agency warns that the situation could get much worse if operations don’t scale up than even their most dire projections.
One of the poorest cities in the world is Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. The city has been plagued with civil war since the 1990s, giving rise to child soldiers, land mines, and conflicts with neighboring Sierra Leone. Even after the civil war abated, the city still struggled to regain its footing. As a result, it fell far behind other capital cities in terms of the quality of life for its residents. With 54% of the population living below the poverty line, the World Bank highlights the difficult living conditions in the city. Most of its inhabitants practically surviving on only $2 a day.
Even the city’s infrastructure is a testament to the inescapable poverty of its residents. Narrow, poorly paved streets litter the downtown area, and they are unable to keep up with the demand for personal vehicles. Public transportation is virtually non-existent in a city prone to flooding and diseases. Lack of running water, an erratic power supply, and substandard healthcare all contribute to keeping Monrovia one of the poorest cities in the world.