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The Epidemics That Have Defined Human History, In One Chart

From the Justinian Plague that killed 25 million people across the Roman Empire to Ebola today, it's easy to see how civilizations are shaped by their diseases.

Photo: Flickr user sari_dennise

As anyone who has managed to stay awake through an entire high-school history lesson will know, communities, countries, and civilizations have been shaped by disease. Even before air travel and other easy, long-distance transport, epidemics managed to wipe out humans in terrifying numbers. Imagine, for instance, that this year's flu managed to wipe out 50 million people across all continents. That happened in 1918, when the Spanish Flu turned into a worldwide pandemic.

This infographic, created by the people at Sound Vascular, charts the epidemics that defined their era, from the Justinian Plague that killed 25 million people across the Roman Empire in 541AD, to Ebola and Zika today.

Including Ebola, and the non-lethal Zika virus, in the same chart as HIV/AIDS, or the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century, might seem a little frivolous, but the thing is, we don't know which epidemics are important until later. Zika may or may not prove to be a serious threat, dependent on whether we come up with a treatment or a vaccine, for example.

What the chart does show is that we have moved to mostly self-inflicted diseases in recent years. Obesity can legitimately be considered an epidemic, one that is already firmly rooted in the U.S., and quickly spreading across the rest of the world. And the inclusion of California's 2010 whooping cough epidemic, aka pertussis, aka the "hundred-day cough," is also illustrative. This was the largest outbreak since 1947, and is thought to have happened because of an anti-vaccination campaign. Another self-inflicted example would be our systematic over-use of antibiotics, once cure-all wonder drugs, which will soon become useless.

Are we any worse at looking after ourselves than before? Probably not. It's just that, as we cure, or learn to manage, more and more life-threatening diseases, the only ones left are those we can't cure, because we willingly inflict them on ourselves.