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What Is the Difference Between an Epidemic and a Pandemic?

‘Epidemic’ and ‘pandemic’ are two words that have become part of our everyday speech. There can be some confusion though in how these words are used and sometimes people will say one thing when they mean another. The way we deal with an epidemic and a pandemic will differ so it is useful to be able to distinguish between them.

What is an Epidemic?

An ‘epidemic’ refers to a situation where more people than would normally be expected are suffering from a certain condition. It is a widespread outbreak of a disease where a lot of people are ill. An example of this would be how almost all communities will experience a cold and flu season, but if the number of people hit by these infections is higher than usual then we would call that an epidemic. An epidemic will be characterised as an infection that infects a lot of people in a certain community or geographical area; in other words the rate of infections will be normal outside of this grouping.

What is a Pandemic?

As we have already said, an epidemic will occur within a certain community or in a particular geographical area. If the infection spreads to a much larger group of people and spreads outside of a community it will then be considered a pandemic. So the difference between an epidemic and pandemic is in regards to the extent of the problem and the number of people who have been affected.

A good example of a pandemic would be swine flu. This infection has occurred on a number of occasions but in 2007 it became a pandemic by spreading to a number of different countries. There was a global effort to prevent swine flu from spreading internationally and it seems that these efforts were successful. If this swine flu had only been an epidemic in one community it would have been the cause of concern, but the fact that it became a pandemic had a lot of people panicking.

The terms ‘pandemic’ and ‘epidemic’ can sometimes be a bit misleading if we think that it is only about numbers. For example, most of the population of a country might be infected by the flu but this won’t be considered a pandemic though because it could be that as a whole the countries infection rate isn’t higher than normal.

Why is it Important to Know the Difference between a Pandemic and Epidemic?

The reason why it is important to be able to differentiate between a pandemic and an epidemic is to do with how we react to it. If an infection is higher than normal within a certain community then we can focus health care resources to help deal with people dealing with this epidemic. If the disease becomes a pandemic though, we will need to do all we can to stop the spread of the infection – it becomes a national or international problem rather than just a local one.