What is a Pandemic? World Health Organization on Pandemics and Pandemic History


Pandemic disease isn’t an automatic cause for worldwide panic. Learn what a pandemic really is, plus review real-life historical outbreaks and take a look at them today.

The word “pandemic” usually equates with “pandemonium” in the public mind, but the actual definition of a pandemic is much milder than that.

We are going through Corona pandemic – image by mena.fes.de

What is a Pandemic?

Many people mistakenly believe that a pandemic disease in an incurable or deadly disease, but by definition that just isn’t so. When a disease is declared a pandemic, the word only refers to the spread of the disease – not to its severity.

Pandemic refers to the spread of disease – image by preventionweb.net

Epidemic vs. Pandemic

The following definitions come from the World Health Organization (WHO):

  • Epidemic — when there are more occurrences of a disease than normal
  • Pandemic — when the epidemic occurs on a worldwide scale, not confined to a certain locale
Pandemic vs epidemic – image by verywellhealth.com

The difference between an epidemic and a pandemic lies in whether an unusually large number of cases of a specific disease occur only in certain areas or whether they occur internationally.

Pandemic History: Real-Life Pandemics

Humankind has experienced a number of bona fide pandemic diseases in its history, including smallpox, cholera, and tuberculosis.

Pandemic has terrible impact on our lives – image by apnews.com

Some of the most notable pandemics in history include:

  • Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919. The World Health Organization estimates that the flu outbreak in the early 20th century caused an estimated 40 to 50 millions deaths. Ninety years later, the H1N1 influenza epidemic of 2009 became a cause for worldwide concern.
Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 – image by smithsonianmag.com
  • Black Death of 1347-1352. At the end of five years, 25 million people had died from bubonic plague. The WHO explains that bubonic plague is a bacterial disease spread by bites from infected fleas.
Black Death of 1347-1352 – image by history.com
  • Smallpox pandemic, ended 1970s. Due to an aggressive campaign to eliminate smallpox in the mid-20th century, the last known natural case of smallpox was in Somalia in 1977. The disease was declared eradicated in 1979.
Smallpox pandemic, ended 1970s – image by thesocialhistorian.com

Recent Outbreaks that Never Reached Pandemic Status

A wave of diseases that recently caused an uproar but didn’t quite reach pandemic status are the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak of 2003 and the avian flu (H5N1) outbreak of 2007.

H5N1 outbreak – image by dw.com

Pandemic Preparedness

Handling a widespread outbreak of any disease requires pandemic planning at the national, state, and local levels. Schools, community houses, and churches are all advised to have programs in place to educate the public and help manage outbreaks of H1N1 in their area.

Pandemic preparedness diagram – image by euro.who

The World Health Organization provides downloadable checklists for implementing internal pandemic preparedness plans.

Fictional Pandemics in Popular Media

People have always had a fascination with widespread outbreaks of viruses and their effects on humankind. Best-selling novels about fictional pandemics like Pandemic by Daniel Kalla [Tom Doherty Associates: 2005] and blockbuster pandemic movies like Outbreak (1995) continue to be popular favorites in the media.

While a pandemic may be global in scope, it isn’t necessary cause for alarm. “Pandemic” simply refers to a higher-than-normal occurrence of a specific disease.


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