Transmission electron micrograph of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus

New infections identified since 1918

A timeline of infectious diseases

When the Black Death struck Europe, people were defenceless. They had no natural immunity to the disease, little knowledge of good hygiene and sanitation, and no vaccines – or any modern medicine at all. Now, with our awareness of the causes of disease, high standards of hygiene, and drugs and vaccines, we are much better off.

But the threat of new infections will not go away. There is a constant danger of zoonotic infections – animal pathogens that become adapted to human hosts.

We can now anticipate many of the possible pandemic diseases and take steps to prevent them or lessen their impact. But enormous challenges remain, both scientific and political.

The timeline below includes just a selection of the new diseases that emerged during 20th and early 21st centuries.

NB: Dates refer to when an infectious agent was identified or an infectious disease first described. Agents may have been present earlier. HIV, for example, probably crossed into humans in the 1930s.

1918: Spanish flu

1937: West Nile virus

1956: Asian flu

1965: EV71

1967: Marburg virus

1968: Hong Kong flu

1969: Lassa fever

1972: Norovirus

1976: Legionnaires’ disease, Ebola virus

1977: Lyme disease

1981: HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)

1986: BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy)

1987: Hepatitis C virus

1993: Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome

1996: vCJD (variant Creuzfeldt–Jakob disease)

1998: Nipah virus

2002: SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome)

2003: Human H5N1 avian flu

2005: Chikungunya virus

2006: XDR-TB (extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis)

2012: MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome, pictured above)

Lead image:

Transmission electron micrograph of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus.



About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Epidemics’ in September 2007 and reviewed and updated in January 2015.

Microbiology, Health, infection and disease, Medicine, Immunology, History
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development