Epidemics vs. Pandemics: Defining Global Diseases


Did you know that diseases are spreading throughout the globe faster than ever before? You have probably heard the words “epidemic” and “pandemic” thrown around in the media, but do you know what these terms really mean? Although they are often used interchangeably in the news, there are important distinctions between epidemics and pandemics.

Epidemics vs. Pandemics

Simply put, a pandemic is an epidemic that has started to spread across the globe. A disease is labeled an epidemic if it is spreading within a particular region, affecting many people in the area. The number of cases must surpass what is considered normal for the disease in that region for a given period of time. An epidemic may become a pandemic if it spreads beyond the initial area and begins to infect people on a greater scale. Pandemics are characterized by their wider geographical spread, often throughout a continent or the entire world, and they affect significant portions of the population. Due to their global scale, pandemics tend to cause more loss of life and societal disruption. 

How It Works

Although there is no precise dividing line between epidemics and pandemics, diseases are generally considered to reach pandemic status when they begin to infect individuals located outside of the region affected by the initial epidemic. The World Health Organization, or WHO, declares official pandemic status when a disease has reached this point. WHO’s announcement raises public awareness and serves as a cue to ramp up responses from health agencies, encouraging international collaboration among these organizations. As for past examples of these outbreaks, you may be familiar with the polio and measles epidemics in U.S. history. More likely, you have heard about, or even experienced, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 or the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic in 2009.

Although WHO is responsible for addressing various health concerns across its almost 200 member states while operating on a limited budget, the organization has received criticism for its lack of preparedness for outbreaks. Following the Ebola epidemic in 2016, the organization reworked its health emergency management system to prioritize preparation and response. It is crucial to understand that WHO cannot force its members to follow guidelines, and national and local leaders also hold a responsibility to address public health threats effectively. 

Why Care?

As changes in land use motivate humans to move further and further into previously uncharted territories, unprecedented levels of interaction between humans and animals have exposed people to new strains and diseases that they are not prepared to fight. Combined with growing, highly condensed populations and global travel, diseases are especially likely to result in epidemics and pandemics in today’s world.

It is essential to understand that these public health emergencies will continue to occur, and we, as citizens and future leaders, must follow necessary precautions to protect others and minimize losses. Take recommendations from government and health agencies seriously, and prioritize your health and hygiene for your own sake and the sake of your community. Stay informed and prepared by researching where your representatives stand on public health issues that could exacerbate the risk of epidemics and pandemics locally. Lastly, find aid organizations in your area that address these issues and offer your time and resources as support.

Think Further

  1. How do you think learning more about epidemics and pandemics can help you to become a more responsible consumer of news and media?
  2. What specific actions are humans in the modern world taking that may increase their exposure to diseases carried by animals?
  3. How might a pandemic affect regions of the world differently?


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Learn More

  1. Stanborough, Rebecca Joy. “How Is a Pandemic Different from an Epidemic?” Healthline, 2020, www.healthline.com/health/pandemic-vs-epidemic#what-is-an-epidemic.
  2. Gulshan, Bobby. “Outbreaks, Epidemics and Pandemics-What You Need to Know.” APIC, 20 Mar. 2020, apic.org/monthly_alerts/outbreaks-epidemics-and-pandemics-what-you-need-to-know/.
  3. “Definitions: Emergencies.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 17 Nov. 2014, www.who.int/hac/about/definitions/en/.