Pandemic or Epidemic | What’s the Difference?

The world is gripped in the clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic, with what feels like no end in sight. When this novel coronavirus first entered the scene, the word pandemic emerged. World health officials determine whether the spread of a disease or illness is considered an epidemic or a pandemic based on specific criteria.

What Is an Epidemic?

WHO defines an epidemic (1) as the spread of a disease in a community or region. To be classified as an epidemic, the illness or disease must be suddenly increasing in numbers beyond what was expected.

There is a lot of confusion between an epidemic and a pandemic. The lines often are blurred between when something is an epidemic and when it has crossed the threshold to pandemic proportions. When widespread treatment is available for a disease or illness, it usually earns it the epidemic label. Stopping the transmission of the disease is the only way to end an epidemic.

What Is a Pandemic?

The World Health Organization (WHO) (2) defines a pandemic as the “worldwide spread of a new disease.”

Note that WHO lists one of the criteria for being labelled a pandemic as the disease being new. Novel is the scientific word to indicate a disease is new and doesn’t resemble anything formerly known. COVID-19 is listed as a novel coronavirus.

The word pandemic (3), specifically, is used to define the geographic spread of a new disease. To be labelled a pandemic, an illness must spread across countries or continents and affect a significant number of people. COVID-19 has become a global pandemic (4), reaching 209 countries and territories.

The Most Deadly Pandemics

Pandemics have been around a long time, as far back as 1347, when the Black Death (5) hit Europe and wiped out an estimated 200 million people in four years. Ahead of their time, officials introduced the concept of isolation, slowing the spread of the disease.

Smallpox is another pandemic that wreaked havoc. When it came to the Americas from Europe, it wiped out 90 to 95 per cent of the indigenous population within 100 years. It was the world’s first pandemic to be ended with a vaccine.

The Spanish Flu (6) is a pandemic most compared with COVID-19 for its high contagion level and global reach. About 500 million people contracted the illness, causing 50 million deaths worldwide.

Preventative Measures

WHO predicts the number (7) of “high-threat, infectious hazards” will continue to rise. WHO partners with experts from technical, scientific and social fields to help develop global strategies for stemming pandemics. To date, WHO has applied this strategic method to Yellow Fever, Cholera and Influenza.

Future pandemics can’t be predicted or prevented. But WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus identified four key areas (8) governments need to address before facing the next pandemic:

  1. Prepare and be ready.
  2. Detect, protect and treat.
  3. Reduce transmission.
  4. Innovate and learn.

Governments especially need to be clear in communicating steps to take to reduce risk and increase protection.

Other Types of Diseases

Due to the variables surrounding disease, epidemiologists describe disease events in a number of ways.

  • Cluster (9) – a disease that occurs in larger numbers; a cause may be undetermined
  • Endemic – a disease or illness that is prevalent in a geographic population.
  • Sporadic – a disease that occurs in an infrequent or irregular manner.

The Bottom Line

Whether facing a pandemic or an endemic, handwashing to sanitising hands plays a part in stopping the spread of disease. When access to soap and water isn’t immediately available, hand sanitiser is effective against virus cells. Just rub it in for at least 30 seconds and be sure to cover your entire hand for the best results.

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