One of the things we get asked a lot right now is about Epidemics and Pandemics. With the current impact of modern epidemics traveling throughout the world, it’s understandable.
While we’re going to explore this both in the modern and historical contexts, we also believe in giving our readers information and research that will help them NOW. At the end of this blog post you will find some helpful links and information for the current Coronavirus Covid-19 epidemic.
Epidemics and Pandemics, a Historical Perspective on a Modern Concern
So, with the 2019 influenza strain hitting harder than normal this year and the global concern in the past several weeks about the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, what is the next step? How is this modern concern similar to historical epidemics, and can we learn anything from the past to help with our current situation?
We get asked about this, because both RoseAnna and I specialized at one time in our careers in diseases and how they affect the community. She is a medical anthropologist and my undergraduate work and part of my masters work was on influenza, specifically. RoseAnna and I decided that, given our own specialties, and that we had already planned a special feature this year on Historical Diseases and Epidemics for part of our History of Science department, it would be smart to start this up early. We want to take the time to answer the questions that we get, and we hope that we can also show how important learning from the past can be.
To start with, let’s define what an epidemic and a pandemic actually are.
What is an epidemic?
The generalized definition of an epidemic is when an infectious disease spreads rapidly through any given population and is contracted by a large number of people in that population in a short amount of time. More specifically, it meets the following criteria:
- Within two weeks or less spreads rapidly through a population.
- The attack rate is greater than 15 reported cases/100,000 people for two consecutive weeks (CDC, 2020).
Often epidemics can be limited (or restricted) to one location. We’ve seen this with several of the Ebola outbreaks, for instance. In 2017, when there was an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was contained within the area very quickly. Whereas with the 2014 epidemic, it traveled through 11 countries. The numbers were not high enough to be declared a pandemic, but were concerning enough that they kept a very close eye on it, and had it not been contained and a vaccine found, it could have become catastrophic.
Still using Ebola as our example, when we look at the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the disease could be contained before it spread to other communities. In the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the disease spread from community to community, even from country to country. When a disease spreads like this it makes epidemics an international health concern and can then lead to a pandemic. (More about those later.)
What are the causes of epidemics?
The causes of epidemics are typically several factors. These factors then come together at the same time and create the unique environment needed for a disease to evolve into something infectious enough to spread quickly. The change in the ecology is one of the largest factors. This pertains to the interactions of biological environments with other organisms and how they affect the density of the host population. The higher the density of the population, the more likely diseases are to spread. The disease agent could be biotic or antibiotic.
Epidemics happen typically when a known pathogen changes or a new pathogen is introduced to a community where the immunity to that known pathogen is compromised or non-existant. It could be a genetic change, the mutation of a known entity, or the introduction of a new entity to the environment. When this happens, it drops below the tolerance (endemic equilibrium) of the community and the transmission threshold is breached. It is then unable to maintain its stability within a host community.
Now that we know what epidemics are, what is a pandemic?
Whereas epidemic refers to a large number of infected people in a given population, pandemic refers to the spread of the disease over a large geographical area. Diseases, such as influenza and the Plague, have traveled as long as humans have traveled, spread unwittingly by merchants, pilgrims, tourists, and soldiers. In the modern era of airplane travel, diseases can spread faster than ever. This makes pandemics an international health concern.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is the institution that monitors and guides the world during epidemics and pandemics. The WHO examines outbreaks by following them through multiple phases. They move through the phases of identification, observation, rate of spread, how many countries in a region develop the disease in question. As things spread, it is the WHO who determine what the state of things are globally.
Once the spread moves into multiple countries at a significant rate of infection, they declare it a pandemic. Their work has just begun at that point. The World Health Organization mobilizes to assist the countries who need help, offer guidance, and track the continued progress of the disease through the “Pandemic” phase and well into the “Post-Pandemic” phase.
How does examining the history of epidemics and pandemics and other diseases help?
Examining our history teaches us how to handle (or not handle) things in our future. It’s a universal truth. If we examine how people have handled previous epidemics, we hopefully learn from them. The study can teach us new ways to treat, new ways to contain, and even new ways to recover after things settle down.
We have heard so much in the past few months about the Influenza epidemic of 1918 and for good reason. It was one of the very first epidemics where information was tracked and from that information we learned just how important things like social distancing is, especially early on.
When we study the trends in past epidemics, we can use them to help us predict how future ones will develop.
What do we do if we are facing an epidemic or pandemic?
This is a question everyone is asking right now as we watch the spread of Covid-19. Each of us is wondering the same things. What do we do? How do we stay safe? How can we prevent this? If we can’t prevent it, how do we handle it and stave it off. Can we learn from this and stop it from happening again?
The reality is that there is no easy answer. What you can do is stay informed. Keep calm. Don’t let fear take over. Don’t let ignorance win. The things you can do to help are actually very simple:
- Don’t Panic.
Seriously. If we all panic, then we aren’t listening to the experts and doing the things that they need us to do.
- Wash Your Hands.
Not that quick run through water with a touch of soap we are all guilty of. Wash thoroughly with intent. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Find a nice song to hum, quote the famous intro from Star Trek (“Space, the final frontier…”). Do what works for you, but DO IT. You will save lives this way.
- Limit how often you touch your face.
This is so hard, but so important, so at least try.
- Listen to the health officials. If your area is high risk with diagnosed cases, then listen to what they tell you. If they suggest social distancing, then do it Honor any travel bans or limitations put in place. These things are both for your protection as well as the protection of others.
- Stay. At. Home! Now is not the time for social gatherings. Now is when we help protect each other by NOT socializing. There are so many ways to still keep in contact out there. You can’t wander around on social media without tripping over dozens of options.
- If you are diagnosed with Covid-19, Please, PLEASE remain quarantined for the time (usually 14 days) asked of you. Please don’t break quarantine and be responsible for infecting others.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Isolation.
Where can I find information on current events regarding epidemics and pandemics?
There is so much going around right now that it is very hard to keep track of the information. We are going to try to keep things updated for you here so that you have access to the most up-to-date websites. We will keep this page updated and post more updates in our blog. You do not need to join our mailing list to get the updates. We want this basic information available to all. If you want some tools for teaching about epidemics and diseases, then you can join our mailing list for that more tailored information.
For now, here are the basic websites that we use to track the current pandemic.
- Center for Disease Control (USA)
CDC main website
CDC on coronavirus and Covid-19
CDC Situation Reports on Covid-19
CDC – Cases in the U.S.
- World Health Organization (Global)
WHO main website
WHO on coronavirus and Covid-19
WHO Situation Reports on Covid-19
- Our Recommended Websites on how YOU can help keep the spread controlled.
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center (Map)
Visualizing the History of Pandemics
Workplace: Keeping your workplace safe (CDC document)
Don’t Panic: The comprehensive Ars Technica guide to Coronavirus
Infectious Disease Doctor: What Does (And Doesn’t) Scare Me About The Coronavirus.