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What It Is and What It Means for You

The current worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 has left many people with concerns about the spread of this new disease. Among those concerns is one important underlying question: What exactly is a pandemic?

The spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was officially defined as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020, due to its sudden emergence and expansion around the world.

In this article, we’ll explore what defines a pandemic, how to prepare for a pandemic, and how many pandemics have affected us in recent history.

According to the WHO, a pandemic is defined as the “worldwide spread of a new disease.”

When a new disease first emerges, most of us lack the natural immunity to fight it off. This can cause a sudden, sometimes rapid, spread of the disease between people, across communities, and around the world. Without a natural immunity to fight off an illness, many people can become sick as it spreads.

The WHO is responsible for announcing the emergence of a new pandemic based on how the spread of the disease fits into the following 6 phases:

  • Phase 1. Viruses circulating among animal populations haven’t been shown to transmit to human beings. They’re not considered a threat and there’s little risk of a pandemic.
  • Phase 2. A new animal virus circulating among animal populations has been shown to transmit to human beings. This new virus is considered a threat and signals the potential risk of a pandemic.
  • Phase 3. The animal virus has caused disease in a small cluster of human beings through animal to human transmission. However, human to human transmission is too low to cause community outbreaks. This means that the virus places humans at risk but is unlikely to cause a pandemic.
  • Phase 4. There has been human-to-human transmission of the new virus in considerable enough numbers to lead to community outbreaks. This kind of transmission among humans signals a high risk of a pandemic developing.
  • Phase 5. There has been transmission of the new virus in at least two countries within the WHO region. Even though only two countries have been affected by the new virus at this point, a global pandemic is inevitable.
  • Phase 6. There has been transmission of the new virus in at least one additional country within the WHO region. This is known as the pandemic phase and signals that a global pandemic is currently occurring.
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As you can see above, pandemics aren’t necessarily defined by their growth rate but rather by the spread of the disease. However, understanding the growth rate of a pandemic can still help health officials prepare for an outbreak.

Many disease outbreaks follow a growth or spread pattern described as exponential growth. This means they spread at a rapid rate over a specific period of time — days, weeks, or months.

Think of driving a car and pressing on the gas pedal. The farther you travel, the faster you go — that’s exponential growth. Many initial disease outbreaks, like the 1918 influenza pandemic, seem to follow this growth pattern.

Some diseases also spread sub-exponentially, which is at a slower rate. This is like a car that maintains speed going forward — it doesn’t increase in speed across the distance it travels.

For example, one research study found that the 2014 Ebola epidemic seemed to follow a much slower disease progression at the local level in some countries even though it spread faster, or exponentially, in others.

When public health officials know how quickly a disease is spreading, it can help them determine how quickly we need to move to help slow that spread.

Pandemic and epidemic are related terms used to define the spread of a disease:

  • An epidemic is the spread of a disease in a community or region over a specific amount of time. Epidemics can vary based on the location of the disease, how much of the population has been exposed, and more.
  • A pandemic is a type of epidemic that has spread to at least three countries within the WHO region.

A pandemic can be an uncertain time for many people around the world. However, pandemic prevention tips can help you prepare for the worldwide spread of a disease:

Pay attention to news reports from health agencies

News updates from the WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can provide information on the spread of the disease, including how to protect yourself and your family during the outbreak.

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Local news can also keep you updated on new legislation that is being enforced during the pandemic.

Keep your house stocked with a 2-week supply of food and essentials

Lockdowns and quarantines may be enforced during a pandemic to slow or stop the spread of the disease. If possible, keep your kitchen stocked with enough food and essentials for about a 2-week period. Remember, there’s no need to stockpile or hoard more than you can use over 2 weeks.

Fill your prescriptions ahead of time

It can help to have medications filled ahead of time in the case that pharmacies and hospitals become overwhelmed. Keeping over-the-counter drugs can also help ease any symptoms you might experience if you contract the disease and need to self-quarantine.

Make a plan of action in the event of illness

Even if you follow all the protocols recommended during a pandemic, there’s still a chance you could become sick. Talk to family and friends about what would happen if you become ill, including who will take care of you and what will happen if you need to be admitted to the hospital.

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