Pandemic or Epidemic – What’s the Difference?
An epidemic is an outbreak of a virus or other illness that spreads easily from human to human but it is more confined to an area, region or even a country. It isn’t a global occurrence. Seasonal flu is an example of an epidemic.
Epidemics usually result from a virus or subtype that is, or has been, circulating among humans. Therefore there is some immunity and the virus will not spread as rapidly. An epidemic can be very deadly, especially to the very young and very old as well as those with chronic illnesses. This is why, for example, flu vaccines are essential to help control the spread of the flu virus and to prevent deaths from complications such as pneumonia.
A pandemic occurs when a novel (or new) virus spreads easily among humans causing serious illness and death. Because it is usually a novel virus, humans have little or no immunity to it and the virus can spread rapidly. It usually causes many more deaths than an epidemic.
After the pandemic spreads, the virus will continue to circulate for several years. With the immunity that humans will have built up from exposure and illness and vaccines that have been developed from the strain, these viruses will not cause further pandemics.
Health care issues with a pandemic include:
- rapid transmission due to a highly mobile society
- antiviral medications and vaccines and antibiotics to treat secondary infections (such as pneumonia) would be used rapidly and supplies could become critically short
- it will take months to develop a vaccine against the novel virus
- medical facilities and personnel could become overwhelmed
- shortages of nurses and physicians could reach critical levels
- vital community services could be affected by a widespread outbreak
Plagues and outbreaks of cholera, small pox, typhus and influenza have caused pandemics throughout history. More recent pandemics include the 1918 Spanish flu which was originally thought to have been a swine flu or H1N1 Influenza A virus, but was not. In 1918, there were over 40 million deaths from the Spanish flu worldwide. What started out as a cough and achy muscles lead to a serious pandemic.
In 1957 the Asian flu pandemic hit and in 1968, the Hong Kong flu also became a pandemic. HIV/AIDS which began in the 1980’s and continues today is also considered a pandemic. The swine flu of 2009 is a pandemic, although with the rapid response worldwide, it is hoped to not be as severe as was originally thought.
Prevention is Key
It is important to understand that viruses can mutate and spread rapidly. Agencies such as WHO and the CDC monitor events and issue warnings as needed. Prevention is key. Handwashing is so low tech, but it can help prevent the spread of illness. Covering a cough or sneeze is not just polite; it is also essential to control the spread of germs. Social isolation as needed is an absolute.
Be Prepared for a Pandemic
Being prepared for any emergency is also an essential fact of life in the 21st century. Keeping a pantry stocked with provisions is vital. Maintaining at least a two week supply of prescription medications as well as a few essential OTC medications for cough, cold, and GI distress is also well advised. Be sure to renew any expired medications and store them according to the manufacturer’s label.