Coronavirus: What’s a Pandemic vs. an Epidemic?

Coronavirus Pandemic

Getty A lab technician begins semi-automated testing for COVID-19 in Lake Success, New York.

On Wednesday, March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. During a press conference, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled at the same time.”

He also added that calling the coronavirus a pandemic does not change the WHO’s overall threat assessment, their actions and the responses that countries should take.

The transcript of Ghebreyesus’s speech is available on the WHO website.

A Pandemic Is an Epidemic That Has Spread Over Many Countries & Continents

The change in designation for the coronavirus from an epidemic or outbreak to a pandemic has concerned many people and confused others. What is a pandemic and how is it different from an epidemic?

According to the CDC, an epidemic is an “increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.” A pandemic, on the other hand, is an epidemic that’s “spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.”

During the press conference, Dr. Tedros said the WHO was “deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.” He said that “We cannot say this loudly enough or clearly enough, all countries can still change the course of this pandemic.”

The former director of the CDC, Dr. Tom Frieden, wrote an article for CNN on February 25, 2020, saying that the coronavirus would definitely become a pandemic. He wrote: “This is unprecedented. Other than influenza, no other respiratory virus has been tracked from emergence to continuous global spread.” He said that countries are a lot more prepared for pandemics than they have ever been, but that preparedness is countered by the fact that people are a lot more interconnected than ever before and have a lot more chronic health issues that make viral infections much more dangerous.

The WHO Said the Term Pandemic Should Not Be Used “Lightly” as it Can Cause “Unreasonable Fear”

In his press conference, Dr. Tedros said “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.” He said countries need to work to change the course of the coronavirus.

The last pandemic that took place was the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, and it was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people over the world. The CDC said that the first recorded flu pandemic happened in 1580. Perhaps the deadliest flu pandemic of all was the “Spanish” influenza after World War I. From 1918 to 1919, an estimated 21 million people globally died from the pandemic.

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