Protection against severe infectious disease in the past

Pathog Glob Health. 2021 May;115(3):151-167. doi: 10.1080/20477724.2021.1878443. Epub 2021 Feb 11.


Before the 20th century many deaths in England, and most likely a majority, were caused by infectious diseases. The focus here is on the biggest killers, plague, typhus, smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid, dysentery, childhood infections, pneumonia, and influenza. Many other infectious diseases including puerperal fever, relapsing fever, malaria, syphilis, meningitis, tetanus and gangrene caused thousands of deaths. This review of preventive measures, public health interventions and changes in behavior that reduced the risk of severe infections puts the response to recent epidemic challenges in historical perspective. Two new respiratory viruses have recently caused pandemics: an H1N1 influenza virus genetically related to pig viruses, and a bat-derived coronavirus causing COVID-19. Studies of infectious diseases emerging in human populations in recent decades indicate that the majority were zoonotic, and many of the causal pathogens had a wildlife origin. As hunter-gatherers, humans contracted pathogens from other species, and then from domesticated animals and rodents when they began to live in settled communities based on agriculture. In the modern world of large inter-connected urban populations and rapid transport, the risk of global transmission of new infectious diseases is high. Past and recent experience indicates that surveillance, prevention and control of infectious diseases are critical for global health. Effective interventions are required to control activities that risk dangerous pathogens transferring to humans from wild animals and those reared for food.

Keywords: Pandemic; emerging disease; infectious disease; prevention; public health; zoonotic.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Communicable Disease Control / history*
  • Communicable Diseases / epidemiology
  • Communicable Diseases / history*
  • Communicable Diseases / microbiology
  • Communicable Diseases / virology
  • History, 15th Century
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • History, Ancient
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Public Health / history