The Atlas of Disease

Mapping deadly epidemics and contagion from the plague to the zika virus


The story of how deadly diseases invaded our world makes fascinating reading. From the moment that scourges such as plague, smallpox and syphilis first struck at human populations, the unfolding narrative would encompass so much more than medicine and science. For in tracking the paths of epidemics over the centuries, we can draw clear parallels with the story of our own progress, from when we first began living together in settlements and herding animals, through the growing interaction between different nations and civilisations, to the mass movements of people in the name of trade, exploration and conquest.


And we also see the terrible consequences of epidemics at particular times and in particular places, not only in terms of individual suffering, but also in their social and economic effects, particularly on some of the most deprived groups of people.


Here I plot the course of some of the pivotal and devastating epidemics and pandemics caused by the most virulent diseases across the centuries. The information is presented in a series of specially commissioned maps that bring the dry data to life in a way that lists and tables never can. Alongside each map is an account of the striking, often devastating, stories behind them.


But this is not only the history of the great plagues of the past. Today, despite the extraordinary advances in microbiology and medicine of the 20th and 21st centuries, the human race is still engaged in a hard-fought struggle against deadly pathogens such as Zika, Ebola and SARS which, despite the powerful weapons now in our armoury, all too often seem to be one jump ahead.


Behind each of these maps then there is fear and suffering but there is also the relentless quest for knowledge to allow the human race to fight back against deadly enemies that are still proving remarkably resourceful.

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© Sandra Hempel