The first thing you need to know is that, though often used to describe any old widespread bad thing, the plague is actually a specific family of diseases caused by a bacterium with a pretty name, Yersinia Pestis, who was also a villain in the Harry Potter books.
Obviously (you might say to your friends around the water cooler, speaking through your little paper mask) the Bubonic plague is the most notorious of yersinia pestis’ children, killing off fully a third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1353, earning its own pandemic nickname, the Black Death. It was said to have originated in the Gobi Desert and spread along trade routes on flea-ridden rats. If you have giant swollen “buboes” in your lymph system (neck, armpits, groin), you should see a doctor, because you have the plague. But don’t freak out (unless you’re reading this in an isolated corner of the Third World) — antibiotics can handle the plague.
Notable in pop culture: Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, is one of many artworks to use infectious disease as a metaphor for political paranoia and the spread of fascism. One day we hope to write a book that uses the spread of fascism as a metaphor for a pandemic disease.
You might also know it as “jail fever,” “camp fever,” “ship fever”… basically you could just call it “holy crap this place I am in is dirty, crowded and unpleasant” fever. Whatever you do, don’t call it “typhoid fever” because that is a completely different disease and if you mistake the two you will look like an idiot. Typhus is a parasitic bacteria most commonly spread by lice, and first showed up in 15th-century Spain when the unhygienic Christians lost nearly 20,000 men to feverish delirium in the middle of a war with the Moors, proving once and for all that God is, in fact, Muslim (or at least a neat freak).
Notable in pop culture: Well, insofar as a typhus outbreak was a key factor in Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812, Crime and Punishment might have been written in French, which wouldn’t have worked.
Cholera got its first big break in India, where traveling pilgrims served as perfect carriers for this very painful, very deadly version of gastroenteritis (no need to go into the specifics, which are gross). Beginning in 1816, the disease spread across the subcontinent and into the Far East, killing tens of thousands of British troops and hundreds of thousands of Indians in the first few years. By 1860, nearly 15 million Indians were dead.
It may just be the scariest of all the scary diseases as it has been known to move from initial symptoms to death in just three hours (bearing in mind that initial symptoms are really just things like a sore tummy).
Notable in pop culture: Somerset Maugham’s recently adapted novel, The Painted Veil, uses a cholera epidemic as an existential goad for a failing, emotionally dead English couple working in China. You see, people, if death is near, life is worth living!
Oh, hey, this one. Even though we all have “cold and flu” remedies in the medicine cabinet, the deadly eruption of Swine Flu reminds us that “the flu” is not just something to fake to get out of work.
The most famous flu pandemic was the Spanish Flu, which was first observed in 1918, in Kansas of all places — by the end of 1919, nearly 20 percent of the global population had been infected. The estimated deaths still range from 60 to 100 million, over a period of just 18 months. Famous people like Guillaume Apollinaire, Egon Schiele and Max Weber died from the flu, so being a tortured, artistic intellectual WILL NOT HELP YOU.
The Spanish Flu was a type A influenza strain, of the H1N1 family, and is a close ancestor of your current most-popular flu, the Swine Flu. Though we now have the necessary anti-virals to treat these nasty contagion, the key with a new strain in humans is not to over-treat every possible instance of the disease, as that will only make it stronger. It is perhaps this little detail, the idea of the virus actually growing stronger when we attack it too much, that adds a real element of horror.
Notable in pop culture: Most people probably recall the seminal 1992 episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air known as “The Cold War” in which Will catches the flu from a girl Carlton has also been seeing… How did you catch the flu, Will? WELL? It’s a really good episode.
This scary disease from Africa hasn’t yet ever blossomed into full-scale pandemic, largely because it’s so lethal it doesn’t leave the host enough time to pass it along. The virus is named for the Ebola River (which is a shame, because the Ebola River Valley looks like a nice place to go adventure rafting) where it was thought to originate and; in terms of symptoms, it pretty much destroys the whole system, with blood everywhere, respiratory failure, acute gastroenteritis… it’s awful. A strain of the virus showed up in Virginia but luckily was not human-friendly. Sadly, the virus was also unable to kill the feature film Outbreak.
Notable in pop culture: Yup, as already mentioned, Dustin Hoffman puts on a space suit to battle the “Motaba” virus, from the “Motaba River Valley” in Zaire. Hey, I loved Tootsie, but the man is not and never was an action star.
SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is a pandemic for the 21st century, with its sleek acronymic branding and absolute refusal to honor the traditional “kill mostly poor people in the Third World” code of outbreak conduct (Toronto? Really? You’re going to wipe out Canadians? Who would notice?).
Notable in pop culture: There was a SARS Benefit Concert in Toronto in the summer of 2003, featuring such old rock and rollers as the Guess Who, Rush and the Rolling Stones. Justin Timberlake was booed. It remains the single greatest day in the history of Canadian entertainment. (Alternate names for the show were: SARSStock," "SARS-a-palooza and "SARSfest." No joke.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Smallpox, the one with the little red dots which killed a bunch of English people in wigs, has pretty much been eradicated, so that’s good. Typhoid sounds too much like typhus, so it got shunted to this category (Typhoid Mary ring a bell?). And polio was awful for those afflicted, but had a lower mortality rate than most above (it too has been virtually eradicated). There’s also tuberculosis, which probably had the best nicknames of any of the great pandemics (suck it, Black Death): Consumption, the King’s Evil, the White Plague and, simply, Wasting Disease. (NB: Scarlet Fever is not TB; this mistake will also make you look stupid.