THE words “pandemic” and “epidemic” are oftentimes mistakenly used interchangeably.
This is because the definition of each term is fluid and changes as a disease becomes more or less prevalent over time.
What does pandemic mean?
A pandemic is a disease outbreak that spreads across countries or continents.
It affects more people and takes more lives than an epidemic.
For example, when COVID-19 began spreading and it became clear that the illness was severe, The World Health Organization (WHO) declared it to be a pandemic.
A simple way to remember what a pandemic is to “…remember the 'P' in a pandemic, which means a pandemic has a passport.,” according to intermountainhealthcare.org.
“A pandemic is an epidemic that travels.”
There have been many notable past pandemics in world history that killed many including The Black Death (25million), the influenza pandemic of 1918 (50million), Smallpox (300million) and HIV and AIDS (32million).
What does epidemic mean?
An epidemic is a disease that affects a large number of people within a community, population, or region.
An epidemic is actively spreading as new cases of disease substantially exceed what is expected.
Oftentimes, an epidemic is localized to a region, but the number of those infected in that region is significantly higher than normal.
For example, when COVID-19 was limited to Wuhan, China, it was an epidemic.
The spread geographically turned it into a pandemic.
Why is it important to know the difference?
Knowing the difference between pandemic and epidemic is important to help understand public health news and appropriate public health responses.
In 1999, WHO released the first influence pandemic preparedness plan outlining the appropriate response based on six clearly outlined phases.
The goal for the plan was to coordinate the global response by providing countries a drawn-up blueprint to follow national strategies based on available resources.
In 2009, a new WHO’s pandemic alert system ranging from Phase 1 (a low rise) to Phase 6 (a full pandemic) was designed.
Phase 1: A virus in animals has caused no known infections in humans.
Phase 2: A animal virus has caused infection in humans.
Phase 3: Scattered cases or small clusters of disease in humans are found.
Phase 4: The disease is spreading from person to person with confirmed outbreaks in communities.
Phase 5: The disease is spreading between humans in more than one country of one of the WHO regions.
Phase 6: At least one or more country, in a different region of Phase 5, has community-level outbreaks.
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