Health organizations use the phrases “outbreak,” “epidemic,” and “pandemic” to describe the state of an illness that is spreading among and beyond communities in the world. Although the labels may seem similar, they each mean something different. These definitions guide communities in responding to diseases. They also help predict the potential spread and impact of the illness.
What Is An Outbreak?
An outbreak is a sudden rise in cases of an illness. While you may contain it in a single location, it can also span several countries.
Outbreaks can range in length from a few days to several years. The influenza outbreak is a typical example — and one that we expect. Occasionally, a single case of a disease may be described as an outbreak if it’s exceptionally rare or has serious public health consequences.
What Is an Epidemic?
When a disease spreads rapidly to many people, it becomes an epidemic. In 2003, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic infected over 8,000 people worldwide, and nearly 800 of those infected died. The Zika virus outbreak that began in 2015, as well as the Ebola outbreak that started in West Africa in 2014, became epidemics.
What Is a Pandemic?
Finally, a pandemic is a global outbreak of a disease with the impact to infect and kill many more people than an epidemic. Pandemics often involved new strains (mutations) of viruses. Because we have not yet encountered these strains, our population has not yet had a chance to develop natural immunity. This allows the disease to spread quickly. When it does, it wreaks more havoc on our healths.
Prior examples of global pandemics include the flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which took the lives of between 20 and 40 million people worldwide. More recently, an influenza A pandemic in 1968 killed over 1 million people around the world, and 2009 brought the H1N1 “Swine Flu” pandemic.
Why Does This Distinction Matter?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has the responsibility of labeling infection and disease occurrences. However, experts may use the term independently of the organization. While it’s easier to understand when an outbreak has become an epidemic because of the spread, it may be challenging to determine if an epidemic has or will become a pandemic. WHO relies on a 6-phase system that describes the current status of the disease.
Upgrading an epidemic to a pandemic helps guide the actions taken by countries and companies to prevent further spread (containment) and slow an infection’s spread (mitigation). Upgrading an epidemic to a pandemic may also unlock financial help for impacted people and communities.
The WHO does not make these decisions lightly. The organization wants to avoid panic. Furthermore, if governments, companies, and citizens react to an epidemic, it may not have the chance to spread and become a pandemic. WHO may avoid making this judgment. However, it’s important to respond to these crises appropriately.
Pandemics can impact life more than epidemics or outbreaks due to their sheer scope. When many people become ill, medical resources and staffing must be diverted away from other medical cases. This is why medical facilities may close their doors to nonemergency cases. They may even stop doing nonessential procedures.
Furthermore, when authorities require social distancing or keeping their citizens in their homes, jobs become unstaffed. If governments order businesses, schools, and other organizations to close, their constituents may struggle financially. Small businesses may not be able to rebound after the pandemic. Finally, the workforce can significantly shrink if the pandemic kills millions of people, leading to product shortages until the economy stabilizes once more.
However, this doesn’t mean that an epidemic is less severe, especially for people who live where the outbreak has occurred. Localized shutdowns and quarantines can have the same impact on a smaller scale.
It’s easy to use the wrong word when describing the spread of disease. This can potentially lead to panic or inaction. If you want to remain informed, look for the official designation from the World Health Organization. Don’t just rely on news sources or other people who may misrepresent or misunderstand the situation. But whether dealing with an outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic, it’s always best to be cautious and follow health protocols.