Pandemic: What is the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic?

Pandemic is an aptly-timed documentary series airing on Netflix and it recalls a number of previous pandemics including Spanish Flu and swine flu. The series follows medical experts and scientists who are working hard to find a universal vaccine in order to curb the spread. Earlier in 2020, the coronavirus epidemic was upgraded to a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) – but what is the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic?

On March 11, 2020, the WHO officially announced the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was being classed as a global pandemic.

Those who are concerned about the severity of the coronavirus have been wondering what makes a virus qualify as a pandemic.

An epidemic is used in a broader sense to describe any problem which has grown out of control, where a disease is actively spreading.

The official definition of epidemic is: “Affecting many persons at the same time, and spreading from person to person in a locality where the disease is not permanently prevalent.”

There is also a definition which says it is a rapid spread or increase in the occurrence of something.


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On the other hand, the term pandemic refers to geographical spread and is used to describe a disease which impacts an entire country, or the whole world.

The word epidemic can also be used to describe behaviour, as well as describing matters of health.

In short, epidemic refers to a sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected.

Whereas a pandemic is an epidemic which has spread over several countries and impacts a large number of people – so it is somewhat the next level up.

There had been some concern over the word pandemic as some virus outbreaks are not as severe as people think.

In 2009 the World Health Organisation declared Swine Flu a pandemic, but this turned out to be rather mild in terms of the impact it had on people.

There was some criticism of the use of the word as it meant pharmaceutical companies were rushing to find and develop a drug.

When the coronavirus first started spreading to other countries, the WHO declared it a ‘public health emergency of international concern’.

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But less than three months later, when the virus had spread to multiple countries at the same time, the WHO labelled the outbreak a pandemic.

WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had been concerned about how fast the virus was spreading and there was a lack of action to prevent it.

With cases in more than 100 countries across the globe, it is no surprise the outbreak was upgraded to a pandemic.

The WHO does not ‘declare’ a pandemic like it used to, but the use of the word stresses the importance of countries taking crucial and urgent action to respond to their outbreaks.


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Across the globe, there have been 918,129 reported coronavirus cases and more than 46,000 deaths as a result of the virus.

The UK is currently in the midst of a lockdown period which means all non-essential shops, bars, cafes, restaurants and other non-essential services have been closed.

Families have been told to only leave their homes for essential shopping items, to only leave the house for exercise once a day, and to continue to follow the two-metre social distancing rule.

These lockdown measures are likely to be reviewed after the Easter weekend, and there is no knowing whether they have had a positive effect until then.

Pandemic is available to watch on Netflix now

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