Outbreaks and Epidemics and Pandemics — Oh My!

Alt: A newscaster doodle says, “Bringing you by-the-minute updates on the outbreak. Erm… epidemic. Pandemic?”

You probably know a thing or 2 about the coronavirus pandemic by now. Or is it an epidemic? Outbreak? Wait… what’s the difference?

Health professionals and journalists have been throwing these terms around a lot lately. But since most people don’t know exactly what a pandemic or epidemic is — or how they’re different — the words aren’t all that helpful. You might even call them a little scary (okay, more like panic inducing).

As health communicators, we can resist the urge to hop on this viral jargon bandwagon. (“All the cool health experts are saying it!”) Instead, we can explain these terms in plain language — and help people feel a little less panicky while we’re at it.

Not sure you fully understand the difference between an outbreak, an epidemic, and a pandemic? Don’t worry, dear readers — we’re here for you.

First, let’s clear up the misconception that these terms refer to a disease’s severity. Not so! They’re actually about how widespread a disease is. With that in mind, here’s what you and your readers need to know:

  • An outbreak is a sudden, unexpected increase in the number of people with a disease — usually in a relatively small geographic area, like a city. Think a cluster of TB cases in Chicago.
  • An epidemic is an outbreak that spreads to a large geographic area, like a whole country or region. Think Ebola in West Africa in 2016.
  • A pandemic happens when an outbreak goes global, covering several countries or continents. Think the flu in 1918 — or, you know, COVID-19 right about now.

To be clear, there’s some flexibility in these definitions. You may have noticed, for example, that health professionals continued to call the coronavirus outbreak an epidemic even after it spread to several countries beyond China. That’s partly because, at the time, most of the cases outside China were still related to people who traveled to China.

Health experts don’t always agree on when it’s time to start calling an epidemic a pandemic either. Lucky for you, making that call isn’t your job. You just get to write about it!

But rather than focusing too much on how to classify coronavirus, how about fighting myths and misconceptions by sharing accurate information with your audiences? And maybe throw in a few tips for preventing the spread of coronavirus, too!

The bottom line: “Outbreak,” “epidemic,” and “pandemic” are commonly misunderstood, fear-inducing words. If you need to use one, explain it clearly — and try not to dwell on it.

Tweet about it: Writing about #coronavirus? Confused about the difference between an outbreak, an epidemic, and a pandemic? @CommunicateHlth can help: https://bit.ly/3aLGS1m


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