Reports have been interchangeably using the terms “outbreak,” “epidemic” and “pandemic” to refer to the rising cases of COVID-19 all over the world. And while all these terms do refer to the rising incidence of a disease, the main difference among these terms lies in the scale.
Just a few hours ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced at a media briefing that COVID-19 has been elevated from epidemic to pandemic, citing the “alarming levels of spread and severity” and “alarming levels of inaction.”
To avoid confusion and to more accurately describe the case as we continue to discuss and share precautionary measures to our friends and loved ones, here’s a basic rundown of the differences between the terms outbreak, epidemic and pandemic:
An outbreak is small in scale, but with an unusual frequency. This happens in smaller areas when there’s a noticeable spike in cases of a disease or sickness. Usually when an outbreak is determined, health officials start investigating the cases to find out details like the possible source and types of people affected so that action can be taken to contain it.
The Dictionary of Epidemiology published by the Oxford University Press defines an outbreak as “an epidemic limited to localized increase in the incidence of a disease, e.g., in a village, town, or closed institution.”[READ: Duterte declares a state of public health emergency due to the coronavirus outbreak]
Once the outbreak gets bigger and starts spreading to more areas, it can then be called an epidemic. An outbreak usually escalates into an epidemic when containment efforts were started late, or were insufficient. It can also become an epidemic if a disease continues to spread while treatment is unavailable, as is the case with COVID-19.
In Oxford’s Concise Medical Dictionary, an epidemic is defined as: “a sudden outbreak of infectious disease that spreads rapidly through the population, affecting a large proportion of people.”[READ: Think you’re a close contact of a COVID-19 patient? Here’s what to do next]
“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,” Ghebreyesus said. Once a disease is classified as a pandemic, it means it has spread globally and generally cannot be controlled.
However, Ghebreyesus notes that COVID-19 is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus, but it also the first pandemic that they’ve seen “that can be controlled.”
The Dictionary of Epidemiology defines a pandemic as: “An epidemic occurring over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries, and usually affecting a large number of people.”[READ: Afraid of going out? You can call doctors for COVID-19 with zero mobile charges]
If we follow the definition strictly, as long as an epidemic spreads internationally it can be considered a pandemic. But there are also some epidemiologists, or experts who study the outbreaks of diseases, who only classify a disease as a pandemic once the disease develops in new regions through local transmission (as has been the case in the country recently).
Vox notes that although the term “pandemic” may sound more severe, it really only refers “to how many parts of the world are dealing with an elevated rate of the disease—and, in theory, says nothing about how serious the disease is.”
The differences between these terms and classifications also determine how authorities and ultimately governments should address the situation.
Header image courtesy of Cebudailynews.inquirer.net
Get more stories like this by subscribing to our weekly newsletter here.
Writer: PAULINE MIRANDA