Pandemic vs Epidemic vs Endemic
Not all infectious disease terms are the same, although they are often used interchangeably. The distinction between the words “Pandemic,” “Epidemic,” and “Endemic” is routinely blurred, even by medical experts. This is because the definition of each term is fluid and diseases become more or less prevalent over time.
The colloquial use of these terms may require precise definitions, knowing the difference is important to help you better understand public health news and appropriate public health responses.
Let’s start with basic definitions:
- AN EPIDEMIC is a disease that affects a large number of people within a community, population, or region.
- A PANDEMIC is an epidemic that’s spread over multiple countries or continents.
- ENDEMIC is something that belongs to a particular people or country.
- AN OUTBREAK is a greater-than-anticipated increase in the number of endemic cases. It can also be a single case in a new area. If it’s not quickly controlled, an outbreak can become an epidemic.
Epidemic vs Pandemic
A simple way to know the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic is to remember the “P” in pandemic, which means a pandemic has a passport. A pandemic is an epidemic that travels.
Epidemic vs Endemic
What’s the difference between epidemic and endemic? An epidemic is actively spreading; new cases of the disease substantially exceed what is expected. More broadly, it’s used to describe any problem that’s out of control, such as “the opioid epidemic”.
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An epidemic is often localized to a region, but the number of those infected in that region is significantly higher than normal. For example, when COVID-19 was limited to Wuhan, China, it was an epidemic. The geographical spread turned it into a pandemic.
Endemics, on the other hand, are a constant presence in a specific location. Malaria is endemic to parts of Africa. Like Ice is endemic to Antarctica.
Endemic vs Outbreak
Going a step further, an endemic can cause an outbreak, and outbreaks can occur anywhere. An example of this is the dengue fever outbreak in Hawaii last summer. Dengue fever is endemic to some areas of Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Mosquitoes in these areas carry dengue fever and transmit it from person to person.
But in 2019 there was an outbreak of dengue fever in Hawaii, where the disease is not endemic. It is believed that an infected person had gone to the Big Island and was bitten by mosquitoes there. The insects then transferred the disease to other individuals, causing them to spread, causing outbreaks.
You can see why it’s so easy to confuse these terms. They are all related to each other and there is a natural fluctuation between them as treatments become available and control measures are put in place – or as flare-ups and disease begin to spread.