The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the first to be sparked by a coronavirus.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva that the spread and severity of the deadly new coronavirus, which has infected more than 110,000 people and killed more than 4,000, is “alarming”.
According to Mr Tedros, the WHO is deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.
While the concerns of the WHO are somewhat frightening, it is imperative that individuals come to a better understanding of what a pandemic truly is.
Here are 7 important facts that everyone should know about pandemics.
1. Pandemics are global
The World Health Organization simply defines a pandemic as the worldwide spread of a new disease.
For a disease to be characterized as a pandemic, then it must pose a threat to the lives of many people all over the world simultaneously.
When a disease shows sustained community-level outbreaks in multiple parts of the world, then it will be a pandemic.
Pandemics are more likely if a virus is brand new, able to infect people easily and can spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way.
2. Most pandemics have animal influence
Records show that most of the viruses that have caused past pandemics typically originated from animal influenza viruses.
As has been speculated with the COVID-19 case, human contact with other animals have accounted for the spread of many pandemics that have threatened the world’s population.
3. Person-to-Person transmission is vital
Only the World Health Organization is saddled with the responsibility of deciding whether or not a disease is a pandemic.
According to the health body, cases that involve travellers who have been infected in a foreign country and have then returned to their home country, or who have been infected by that traveller, known as the “index case”, do not count towards declaring a pandemic.
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For WHO to characterize a disease as a pandemic, then there needs to be a second wave of infection from person to person throughout the community.
It is expected that once a pandemic is declared, community spread will eventually happen, and the transmission would go beyond the immediate community to various other regions.
4. Geographic spread over the severity of the disease
The severity of a disease does not necessarily make it a pandemic, it is, for this reason, that cancer is not a pandemic.
Though cancers can be very severe, still they are not mostly classified as pandemics and this is because beyond severity is the geographic spread of the disease.
According to the World Health Organization, a pandemic is declared when a new disease for which people do not have immunity spreads around the world beyond expectations.
5. Deaths on a broad worldwide scale
The number of deaths caused by a disease plays a key role in whether it can be termed a pandemic or not.
However, there have been cases in which some disease killed some persons within a community or country but were not termed pandemics because these diseases were easily contained and stopped from gaining global reputations (spreading to other regions and continents).
In 2003 for example, the SARS coronavirus was not declared a pandemic by the WHO despite affecting 26 countries and this is because its spread was contained quickly, and only a handful of nations were significantly affected.
If a disease is to be termed pandemic then there must be a sustained and intensive community transmission or large-scale casualties.
While there is no magnitude or intensity that needs to be met as regards to the number of deaths or infections, or the number of countries affected, it is pertinent to note that these statistics play a vital role in the declaration of a pandemic.
6. New virus, no immunity
The total number of people who get severely ill and eventually die often varies from one pandemic to the other, but what remains consistent is that the impact or severity is always high because of the much larger number of people in the population who lack pre-existing immunity to the new virus.
Many of the diseases that eventually end up pandemics are novel.
It is the new and unusual nature of these diseases that make their spread alarming and leaves room for many to fall victim. And because more often than not, the world has either not experienced these diseases before or have not witnessed the new variants, tackling them becomes an issue and deaths on a large scale becomes almost inevitable.
7. Epidemic vs Pandemic
There have been several debates as regards the use of the terms epidemic and pandemic, but the difference is not so far-fetched.
While an epidemic is the sudden increase in cases of an illness or disease that can be unique to one country or community, a pandemic occurs when a disease emerges and spreads around the world.
Because more often than not an epidemic is defined as an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of a given population, then it is not out of place to say that a pandemic is an epidemic which has spread across an entire country, moved across continents and is reaching for the entire world.