Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences

POPLHLTH 103G - Epidemics: Black Death to Bioterrorism

15 Points

Semester 2


This course explores the concept of the epidemic – the emergence of diseases or conditions affecting many individuals at the same time. It examines epidemics caused by micro-organisms, environmental contaminants, lifestyle choices and self-harming behaviours.

The course covers historical epidemics from Black Death to coronary heart disease, examines modern-day examples such as influenza, smoking and problem gambling, and explores the concept of social contagion, from nun-biting to alien abduction.

Key course objectives

You do not need a science background to take this course. This course is designed for any student who wishes to broaden their understanding of the rise and fall of epidemics from black death to bioterrorism. Students taking this course will gain an understanding of how various epidemics have shaped human populations in the past, an appreciation of epidemics currently confronting mankind, and a hint of what we may face in the future.

  • To demonstrate an understanding of the nature and cause of different types of epidemics.
  • To have an awareness of the historical background of epidemics and an understanding of contemporary epidemics in New Zealand and world-wide.
  • To have a more detailed understanding of actions that might be taken by society to monitor, manage and prevent one modern epidemic.

Structure of the course

This course is taught by a wide variety of senior staff who are passionate about their work.

The course spans many disciplines. It involves one-hour lectures interspersed with eleven one-hour tutorials. Some lectures involve multimedia presentations including film.



What are epidemics?

Introduction: Black death, Roman goblets and medieval nunneries

Infectious epidemics

  • Piercing memories
  • 1918 Influenza epidemic
  • Vaccine controversies


  • Tuberculosis
  • Ebola
  • Infectious epidemics in history
  • Bioterrorism
  • Epidemics and geography
  • Defending our bodies against bugs
  • Rheumatic Fever epidemic in New Zealand
  • Measles

Epidemics of chronic disease: Gluttony, indolence and melancholy?

  • The rise and fall and rise of the coronary heart disease epidemic
  • Health inequalities for Māori
  • Depression: all you ever wanted to know
  • Possible epidemic of happiness


  • Recreational drugs
  • An epidemic of gambling
  • Alcohol and families
  • Smoking – a modern epidemic that is protracted, severe and legally sanctioned

Environmental epidemics

  • Falls in the elderly
  • The silent epidemic

Social contagion

  • Social contagion
  • Demons, aliens and Satanists


Bringing together the strands: historical, contemporary and possible future contexts in New Zealand and internationally

Course assessment

Four MCQ tests 20% (5% each)

Essay outline 5%

Essay (200 words) 25%

An examination 50%

Recommended readings/textbook

No required text. Additional course readings will be supplied.

Course Coordinator