History of Epidemics

photo credit: International Medical Corps

Over the last 100 years at least half a billion people have died in infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics. While modern medicine has done much to eradicate threats such as smallpox, most of the greatest killers — flu, plague, tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS, cholera, and Ebola — still exist. Globalization, increased international travel, urbanization, deforestation and population pressures are increasing our exposure to infectious disease threats. The World Bank estimated that a moderately severe to severe pandemic could end up costing the global economy 570 billion dollars and the death of millions of people.

Unlike natural disasters we have the power to determine the intensity of an epidemic. Early intervention can prevent an outbreak from becoming an epidemic or ensure an epidemic does not become a pandemic.


Infectious disease outbreaks are common – it is our response to these outbreaks that can help shorten their duration and lessen their severity. In countries with robust health systems, outbreaks are identified and contained quickly, limiting the impact on human life and reducing potential economic costs. In countries where the health system is weaker, an outbreak can take hold and spread rapidly. By the time it has been detected it may have spread beyond the community, to cities and abroad, claiming countless lives and impacting on trade and the economy. The additional burden on already weak health systems can lead to many more needless deaths. Outbreaks must be identified quickly and stopped early to protect lives.

Drivers and Interventions

Governments around the world have committed to do more to address the gaps in epidemic prevention, preparedness and response. Developed countries with strong health systems have good prevention, preparedness and response mechanisms in place however, they may still be at risk due to weak health systems in poorer countries. Poorer countries may want to develop these capabilities, however a lack of resources, competing priorities and weak demand across government, civil society and the private sector means epidemic prevention and preparedness are never a priority.

As a result, most countries can do little more than be reactive once an outbreak occurs rather than relying on mechanisms that should be in place to prevent outbreaks from becoming epidemics.