World Health Organization Has Declared a Pandemic; Here's What That Means

"Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly," said the WHO chief.

(SPOT.ph) The global spread of the novel coronavirus is a pandemic, declared the World Health Organization early morning of March 12, Philippine time. There were around 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 deaths, with the body expecting "to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher," said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO).

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The word "pandemic" illicits no comfort, lightly put, and the WHO has taken extreme care in labelling the spread of COVID-19 as such. "Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly," said Dr. Ghebreyesus, adding that it could "cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over." If you're wondering how medical authorities decide to characterize the spread of diseases—and what sets a "pandemic" apart—check out the definitions below.

Outbreak, Epidemic, and Pandemic

We're sure you've seen these words thrown around in movies and other media, all referring to a spread of disease. To put it simply, both outbreak and epidemic refer to a sudden spike of infections "above what is normally expected in that population in that area," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The main difference is that an outbreak is usually used to refer to a spread occuring in a single geographic area while an epidemic refers to a "less localized" infection—signalling that the disease is spreading much faster than can be contained, explained epidemiologist Rebecca S.B. Fischer in an article on The Conversation

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"Pandemic" itself does not have a strict definition. Fischer referred to it as diseases that are "international and out of control," adding that local transmissions in what were previously unnaffected areas are a factor in the definition.

The last time a pandemic was declared was during the spread of H1N1 influenza in 2009—during which the WHO was greatly criticized for having labelled it a pandemic; the decision allegedly caused more fear and panic than necessary. But as Fischer notes, there is also a political side to the labelling. By calling it a pandemic, governments are being told to "shift efforts from containment to mitigation," said Fischer.

This is the first pandemic to have been caused by a coronavirus, noted Ghebreyesus, "and we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled, at the same time." China and South Korea have recorded declining numbers of the disease, showing that "all countries can still change the course of this pandemic."

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The Philippines has 49 confirmed cases and two deaths related to COVID-19 as of writing. While the word "pandemic" may have been a necessary label, there are other words to focus on, added the WHO chief. "Prevention. Preparedness. Public health. Political leadership. And most of all, people." 

Main image from 1662222 / Pixabay

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