In the wake of the rapid spread of COVID-19, first in China and then across the globe, the word pandemic has been used repeatedly. But what exactly is a pandemic, and how does it become such an unstoppable force across the span of millions of miles?
Epidemic vs. Pandemic
In its simplest terms, a pandemic is the worldwide spread of an infectious disease. Each pandemic is unique. In most cases, only new diseases create the conditions for a pandemic because immunity against the illness doesn’t exist. This is exactly how the 1918 Spanish Flu and H1N1 became deadly pandemics.
By contrast, an epidemic is a health condition that occurs across a large geographic area, like an entire state, region, or country. The Zika virus that emerged in Brazil in 2014 and the opioid crisis in the U.S are both considered serious epidemics.
Most pandemics begin as epidemics before spreading into new locations. Some, like HIV, may linger as epidemics for decades before being deemed a pandemic. Others, such as the coronavirus, spread quickly and aggressively from epidemic to pandemic status.
The Spread of a Pandemic
Pandemics have been recorded throughout human history, but the spread of infectious disease has become significantly more common in recent times due to global travel, trade, and integration.
Experts view the spread of a pandemic from two perspectives: spark risk and spread risk. The spark risk indicates where a pandemic arises. Since pandemics typically originate as a result of pathogens spread from animals to humans, spark risk is highest in countries with extensive livestock systems.
The spread risk, meanwhile, shows how likely a pandemic is to be transmitted through worldwide populations. Everything from public health response strategies, population density, and travel patterns can influence spread risk.
How Do Governments Respond to Pandemics?
Just like the international community plans for wars and natural disasters, it now also prepares ways to limit the impacts of pandemics. This is especially true in developed nations with the resources to create strategic pandemic plans. In fact, all World Health Organization (WHO) member states are now required to meet specific standards for detecting, reporting, and responding to epidemic and pandemic outbreaks.
Once a pandemic begins, governments must focus and coordinate their responses on four specific goals:
- Learn more about the infectious disease and its behavior
- Educate the public
- Reduce transmission of the disease to prevent new cases
- Care for and treat the ill
Of course, that sounds much simpler than it is. Responding to a pandemic is a complex task that requires the combined coordination of federal, state, and local governments, nonprofit organizations, public health authorities, and business entities. Reducing transmission of a pandemic is especially difficult in large populations like the U.S, which is why governments rely on three specific strategies:
- Stop interactions between infected and uninfected people through quarantines, patient isolation, social distancing techniques, and school closures
- Control the potential for infection of sick patients using medical treatments
- Develop and produce vaccines to reduce new infections
A successful pandemic response has the ability to stop a potential disaster in its tracks and protect the global population from serious health risks.