Is This The Worst Public Health Crisis America Has Seen?

While COVID-19 may appear to be a new and rampant disease that is fatal for many vulnerable populations and could permanently damage the lungs of healthy people who recover from the virus, it is not yet the worst America has seen. Photo by CDC on Unsplash.

By Brianna Nargiso, Howard University News Service

Washington, D.C.– As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to increase exponentially, over 330,891 Americans have been diagnosed with the virus. In response, states have taken extreme precautions issuing stay at home orders and encouraging social distancing to avoid the spread of the virus. States like California, Florida, and Washington have issued curfews and lockdowns for their residents. 

While COVID-19 may appear to be a new and rampant disease that is fatal for many vulnerable populations and could permanently damage the lungs of healthy people who recover from the virus, it is not yet the worst America has seen. Here’s a history of other pandemics and epidemics, the U.S. has been through.

Yellow Fever

The Yellow Fever has had several large outbreaks throughout the course of America’s history. In the 1790s yellow fever, a viral infection spread through mosquitoes, made its first appearance in Philadelphia. Killing at least 10 percent of the population at the time, yellow fever began to spread exponentially. Almost half the population of Philadelphia fled the state in fear of getting infected. The epidemic lasted five years and remained dormant before making a comeback in 1820. 

This time taking hold of the South, Savannah, Ga. would suffer with the disease for at least three years. Because it is believed that the disease is originally from Africa, when transporting slaves to Savannah, The South was hit harder than in Philadelphia.

Returning again in 1841, New Orleans reported at least 10,000 yellow fever deaths. The Mississippi Valley would double the deaths in New Orleans with over 120,000 confirmed cases of the fever.

Because the fever is transmitted through various  mosquitos, those in warmer climates near water breed mosquitoes, making those residents a lot more vulnerable to catching the disease which in that time was . Following the several waves of disease, states worked together to ensure workers had better sanitation and work environments, especially those who worked outside in more vulnerable locations. 

In 1906 the method of decreasing the epidemic was to eradicate mosquitoes using dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), a synthetic insecticide. After World War II, DDT, helped lower the amount of confirmed cases. In 1938, the vaccine for Yellow Fever was introduced and is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. It is required for those traveling from the United States to a country more susceptible to the disease.


Beginning in 1832, cholera, a bacterial disease that invades the digestive system began to infect thousands of Americans following the rise in industry work. Because people were not as informed on the consequences of germs and bacteria, the disease spread rapidly throughout the country. The less sanitary communities were most vulnerable to the disease and had a higher likelihood of contracting in one way or another. Causing diarrhea and extreme dehydration, cholera was caused by the imperfect water and sewage systems that existed during the time. Human waste was seeping into the water systems leaving the body defenseless if left untreated within hours. During its peak, the disease killed over 14,000 Americans. The disease eventually died out in 1878 as water systems improved over time and Americans became more conscious of the effects of sanitation.

The Spanish Flu

Originating in 1917, The Spanish flu, a fatal influenza, would be the first pandemic to hit America with the H1N1 virus, a bacterium causing severe human respiratory illness. It is unclear if the influenza started in The United States or overseas considering research has found cases in America before published cases elsewhere. However, it is called The Spanish flu because Spain was one of the first countries to report on the flu in real time. This led to the assumption that it must be native to Spain, although health researchers have said otherwise.

It began as a small outbreak amongst military personnel in Kansas preparing for deployment in Europe. Because health officials did not act quickly or efficiently to contain the virus when it first surfaced, it began to spread across the country and in military camps in Europe and Africa.

Access to clean facilities and sanitized living environments left infected soldiers in camps inevitable to avoid as the virus multiplied. If the symptoms were severe, soldiers were discharged.When soldiers who were too sick to participate in war efforts were sent home the disease travelled with them. However, because of the focus on America’s involvement in WWII censorship did not allow many reporters and media companies to cover the virus which is estimated to have eliminated five percent of the global population contributing to over 100 million deaths and about 500 million confirmed cases of the flu.

After lasting over two years, the influenza ended with several preventative measures like masks, gloves and preventative vaccines for those without the virus and multiple vaccines for infected people who sought medical attention early on to prevent the influenza from creating pneumonia, ultimately killing those with the disease. 

The Asian Flu

In 1957, another deadly influenza made its way into the United States, this time from East Asia. The virus was first reported in Singapore, then China then on coastal regions of The United States. This influenza carrying the H2N2 virus is carried by birds and ducks. 

Although less severe than The Spanish Flu, The Asian Flu contributes to 1.1 million global deaths and 116,000 American deaths and is noted as the second of third major flu waves to come affect the United States greatly.

The Asian Flu was eventually eradicated by a vaccine that targeted the H2N2 virus. Once this vaccine was introduced in 1957, the pandemic slowed down tremendously and has since become a strand of the original seasonal flu that can be attacked by the annual flu shot. It is believed that in 1968 the virus went extinct. However, many laboratories across the country 


Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a virus that directly attacks the body’s white blood cells interfering with how the body defends itself against infectious disease. When infected with HIV the body appears to be fighting a flu until symptoms stop as the condition progresses to AIDS.

It is believed the virus first made human contact in Africa as people in the congo hunted and ate chimps who carried Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), a virus related to HIV.

The first cases of HIV appeared in the 1980s and was described as severe retrovirus that infected the LGBT community, those who are low income and those addicted to drugs. Without a clear understanding of the virus it was seen for a long time as a virus only contracted by gay men. For a large part of the decade, people are unclear what HIV is, where it came from and how people get it. 

The first treatment using zidovudine was administered in 1987. However, at this time testing is still unclear and treatments are not completely guaranteed to cure infected patients. 

In 2007, 600,000 people died of HIV and AIDS in the United States. Due to the stereotypes in the 80s and 90s surrounding the demographics of people most impacted by the disease, thorough research was not conducted on the virus to more efficiently test those showing symptoms, provide effective treatment options and raise awareness to the public.

While the stigma of HIV and AIDS has decreased heavily, and testing has expanded along with treatment options it is still a virus that averages over 30,000 people infected yearly in The United States. In 2017 there were 16,350 HIV related deaths in America.

Swine Flu

Lastly, The Swine Flu, an H1N1 influenza carried by pigs, spread to over 150 countries in 2009. This was the first influenza outbreak America had seen in about 40 years.   

The first reported case of the flu was in Mexico. The first case reported in America was in California when a young girl experienced symptoms of the virus. Due to the easily contagious nature of the respiratory virus, it began to spread rapidly across the country. Between April 2009 and October 2009 it was reported that over 22 million Americans had tested positive for the disease. Over 274,300 cases required hospitalization and resulted in about 12,469 deaths.

With research, The Swine Flu vaccine is now inside of the seasonal flu shot many adults take to prevent from getting the flu or experience milder symptoms if it is contracted.