Explaining “Endemic”

Two doodles sit on a couch watching the news. The newscaster says, “Cat head will likely become endemic.” The doodles are confused. One says, “Pandemic?” The other says, “Epidemic?”

Here at We ❤️ Health Literacy HQ, we’ve been hearing the term “endemic” a lot lately. (As in, “Is COVID endemic yet?”) We’ve also noticed that, like with so many things COVID, many people are confused about the term. And for good reason! People often misuse it, and it’s easy to mix it up with “epidemic.” Plus, “endemic” starts with the word “end” — which makes it sound like a pretty good thing right about now.

As health communicators, we can help by clearly explaining what “endemic” means — and doesn’t mean — to our audiences. Let’s start with the gist: A disease is endemic if people in a particular area continue to get it — that is, it never completely goes away — but it’s predictable. In other words, a relatively steady number of people in a specific place get the disease, and experts have a pretty good idea how it will play out.

Think of the flu. Most flu strains are endemic in most places, meaning they never go away entirely, but we can be pretty sure when cases will rise (you know, flu season) and then fall again. The flu example is also a good way to demonstrate what “endemic” doesn’t mean — specifically, that it does not mean harmless. The flu causes tens of thousands of deaths a year, making it a serious public health issue.

It can also be helpful to explain that it’s still possible to have an outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic of an endemic disease. Once COVID becomes endemic, this could happen if, say, a new variant emerges and current vaccines don’t offer enough immunity. (Remember the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009?)

So when will COVID become endemic, you ask? Unfortunately, dear readers, no one knows. We’re not there yet because experts aren’t able to accurately predict what will happen next, mostly due to the possibility of new variants. It’s also good to keep in mind that the “when” will probably vary from place to place. And while some people might find this uncertainty frustrating, the good news is that we do know how to protect ourselves — like with vaccines, masks, and testing.

The bottom line: Experts believe COVID will become endemic. So let’s help people understand what that does — and doesn’t — mean.

Tweet about it: Everyone’s throwing around the term “endemic” lately! Let’s make sure people understand what it does — and doesn’t — mean, says @CommunicateHlth: https://bit.ly/3uYkVYV #HealthLit


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