What is a Pandemic?

We often hear the word pandemic in the news, but many are uncertain of its precise meaning. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in healthcare, it’s vital that you know how to identify this event. However, such knowledge is also crucial for individuals working in anthropology, sociology, communications, and a wide array of other disciplines. In the article below, we’ll explore the term, the conditions under which it applies, and why it differs from other disease-related terminology.

New to the Scene

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this term applies to the spread of a new disease across a vast region, country, continent or the world. However, with illnesses that reappear and consistently take a high toll on human populations, it may also come into play. What is important to note is that while the term is used interchangeably with the concept of an epidemic, specific differentiation applies. Outbreaks may be serial in nature and may impact particular demographics, such as the very old and the very young.

The prefix ‘pan’ denotes broad impacts, both geographically and demographically. An excellent example of this is the mutation of the flu virus. Each season brings a new threat to public health and safety, irrespective of age or status. Epidemiologists consider seasonal flu outbreaks distinct from those of broadcast impact, such as the H1N1 Swine Flu. This variation took a heavy toll on individuals across many nations and in all age groups, even those who are traditionally less susceptible to infection or death. In the case of most seasonal outbreaks, fatality is a less frequent outcome, and most people tend to recover without medical intervention.

Historical and Modern Exemplars

In both the Classical World and the emergent period known as the Medieval Ages following the fall of Rome, many instances of widespread illness are documented. Unfortunately for most of us, the familiar moniker of Plague is applied to a wide variety of distinctly different diseases. The Bubonic Plague visited Europe not once but in a succession of waves, carried by traders’ ships from the Eastern emporiums of spices and silks. It is estimated that in one particularly deadly outbreak from 1346 – 1353 A.D., it reduced the population of modern day Europe by sixty percent. Successive epidemic events are well noted in more confined localities—such as Italy or England in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Another historically horrifying example of this term is the Spanish Influenza outbreak that followed WWI. Historical epidemiologists estimate that the virus infected as much as a third of the entire world’s population and set a death toll of 100 million. Suppression of reportage by most national governments stifled a full investigation of this strain of H1N1, except in Spain, which is now its namesake.

In our current time, several diseases merit this term. Ebola, HIV/AIDS, H1N1, and other viruses continue to appear, claim life across a broad swath of the globe, and evolve. Zika, West Nile, and different zoonotic vectors—transferred from animal carriers to human populations—are also coming into focus. But it’s important to note that diseases both viral and bacterial have continuously reappeared, from measles to polio, cholera to typhus, malaria to dengue fever. Immunization is the most potent tool we possess to curtail the spread of pandemic diseases and to eliminate or suppress vectors that place human populations at risk.