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What do you mean by pandemic disease declared by WHO?

Published: 16th Mar, 2020

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.


The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.


  • A pandemic is a measure of the spread of disease. 
  • When a new disease spreads over a vast geographical area covering several countries and continents, and most people do not have immunity against it, the outbreak is termed a pandemic. 
  • It implies a higher level of concern than an epidemic, which the US Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) define as the spread of a disease in a localised area or country. 
  • There is no fixed number of cases or deaths that determine when an outbreak becomes a pandemic. 
  • The Ebola virus, which killed thousands in West Africa, is an epidemic as it is yet to mark its presence on other continents. 
  • Other outbreaks caused by coronaviruses such as MERS (2012) and SARS (2002), which spread to 27 and 26 countries respectively, were not labelled pandemics because they were eventually contained.

Outbreaks that have been declared pandemics in the past

  • A major example is the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, which killed between 20-50 million. 
  • Cholera pandemics have been declared multiple times between 1817 and 1975. 
  • In 1968, a pandemic was declared for H3N2 that caused about a million deaths. 
  • The last pandemic declared by the WHO was in 2009, for H1N1.

How does the WHO decide whether to call it a pandemic?

  • Cases that involve travellers who have been infected in a foreign country and have then returned to their home country, or who have been infected by that traveller, known as the “index case” do not count towards declaring a pandemic. 
  • There needs to be a second wave of infection from person to person throughout the community.
  • Once a pandemic is declared, it becomes more likely that community spread will eventually happen, and governments and health systems need to ensure they are prepared for that.
  • An epidemic, on the other hand, is a sudden increase in cases of an illness or disease that can be unique to one country or community.
  • There is no threshold, such as a certain number of deaths or infections, or a number of countries affected, that needs to be met.

Does the declaration change the approach to the disease?

  • Describing the situation as pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the death risk posed by the virus, it does not change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries do.
  • Categorisation as a pandemic can lead to more government attention. 
  • The categorisation by WHO indicates the risk of disease for countries to take preventive measures. 
  • It will help improve funding by international organisations.

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