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Pandemic vs Epidemic: How Do They Differ?

Jun 17, 2020 10:00:00 AM     posted in Industry Trends

As an office manager in healthcare, having a thorough understanding of the latest medical developments can help you provide efficient, informed service to staff and patients alike. And nowhere is this knowledge more important than during global viral outbreaks like the H1N1 (Swine flu) pandemic of 2009, the SARS outbreak of 2002–2003 and the current COVID-19 pandemic.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US reported a total of 2,104,346 cases of COVID-19 infection as of June 16th, with 116,140 deaths. On March 11th, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak the first pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. They also cautioned against lightly using the term “pandemic” — as overusing the term could cause unreasonable fear. 

Knowing the subtle difference between a pandemic and an epidemic could have a significant impact on the way staff and patients manage their response to crises like the current outbreak. In this blog post, we outline the key characteristics and recommended public health responses to both epidemics and pandemics.


Key characteristics of an epidemic

According to Rochester Regional Health, an epidemic happens when a disease spreads quickly and affects a large amount of people simultaneously. An outbreak — or unanticipated and sudden spike in infections — can occur within a community, geographical region or over several countries. During an epidemic, the disease is actively spreading and is considered a problem that’s “out of control”. 

WHO further defines an epidemic, in their 2018 guide to managing epidemics, as an exceptional event that often requires extra human and financial resources. Their guidelines include recommendations for best practice by governments, local authorities and healthcare workers when responding to this public health emergency. These include:

  • Coordinating a comprehensive response by emergency and healthcare workers. Considerations include determining which sectors can offer assistance, what they should do, where they could meet, and how they share information. 

  • Ensuring access to health information. This includes data from surveillance of the disease, and information on interventions. Surveillance considerations include ensuring stakeholders have a common case definition, and confirmation on which population groups are most at risk. When assessing interventions, recommendations include ensuring that all stakeholders agree on what indicators for treatment success are.

  • Adequately communicating risk. WHO caution against “infodemics” — a rapid spread of unreliable information related to an epidemic — and share the following recommendations to manage the spread of false information: talk, listen, and manage rumors. They recommend that authorities quickly and regularly share updates on the disease and protective measures (talk); that they monitor public fears and concerns and tailor their responses to address them calmly (listen); and that they immediately address and correct misinformation (manage rumors). 

  • Health interventions. While every disease requires a different set of interventions, WHO recommends that every response aims to reduce transmissions, lower morbidity and mortality, and lessen the impact on health systems and other social sectors. To this end, they recommend that healthcare authorities determine: what key interventions are needed to control the outbreak at each stage; who should implement them; and how to measure the impact of each intervention on morbidity, mortality, and rate of transmission and society as a whole.
How is a pandemic different?

One National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) resource defines a pandemic as a large-scale outbreak of an infectious disease that greatly increases the morbidity and mortality of a population over a wide area, and causes significant economic, social and political disruption. In short, a pandemic is an epidemic of national or global scope.  

Responses from authorities may be more stringent, as they work to curb the impact of the outbreak. Currently, according to the Pew Research Center, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more than 90% of the world’s population being placed in some form of quarantine, one of which is severe restrictions on international travel.

Healthcare workers, however, perform an essential service and remain largely exempt from these restrictions. During the course of their duties, they’re also at greater risk of exposure to the virus which causes infection. This is why the CDC, for instance, has issued guidance on protective measures that include: the practice of hand hygiene, limiting contact with patients in triage, the appropriate use of PPE like disposable gloves and face masks, and cohorting patients with COVID-19.


What the public can do to aid government efforts

By following World Health Organization and CDC guidelines on protective measures, members of the public can help lessen the demands placed on healthcare by keeping themselves as safe from infection as possible. Basic protective measures that can safeguard the public and healthcare workers alike, include:

  • Hand hygiene. Washing hands with soap and water or using an alcohol-based sanitizer, and where appropriate, the use of disposable gloves.
  • Respiratory hygiene. Coughing or sneezing into a tissue or elbow, and where appropriate, using face masks.

  • Social distancing and self-isolation. Maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from anyone, and staying home if possible.

  • Seeking medical help early. Calling in advance and getting medical help if displaying symptoms such as coughing, fever or difficulty breathing.

  • Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces. The CDC recommends cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces daily. 
How Ventyv® can help Outsmart Infection®

At Ventyv®, we’re dedicated to helping you Outsmart Infection®. We know that up-to-date information lies at the heart of successful innovation and quality service, and that’s why we’re committed to bringing you the latest updates on infection prevention practices on our blog.  Subscribe to our blogs for the latest news. 

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