What IS a Pandemic?

by Lara Neel, Trade Marketing Manager

“Pandemic” is a word that we’re seeing a lot more than usual in the news. Most of us are more familiar with the term “epidemic,” but what’s the difference? In Pandemic: How Climate, the Environment, and Superbugs Increase the Risk, author Connie Goldsmith shares a quick rundown of terms:

Epidemiologists—scientists who study diseases—rate the severity of a particular disease occurring at a given time in one of four ways:
• Outbreaks strike a limited number of people in a limited area and last a short time. Monkeypox, a distant relative of smallpox, appeared for the first time in the United States in 2003. During the two-month outbreak, more than seventy people in six midwestern states developed monkeypox.
• Endemics are diseases that are always present in a region. For example, malaria is endemic in several countries in Africa, such as Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and Uganda.
• Epidemics hit a large number of people in several areas at the same time. In 2014–2015, scientists classified Ebola as an epidemic because it infected large numbers of people in three countries in West Africa.
• Pandemics affect many people in many parts of the world at the same time. For example, the Spanish flu of 1918–1919, which sickened millions of people around the world, was a true pandemic.

Later on in the book, she also shares these very important tips. They’re aimed at reducing bacterial infections, but good hand-washing techniques are important for reducing the risk of spreading viral diseases, too.

One of the best ways to help prevent infections is by regularly washing your hands with soap and warm water. The humble bar of soap remains one of the greatest weapons in the fight against bacteria. You don’t need to use expensive antibacterial soaps advertising that they kill 99.9 percent of germs. In one study, antibacterial soaps actually killed only 46 to 60 percent of bacteria. Not only are the advertising claims false in some instances, but many antibacterial soaps contain an ingredient that may contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance.
Stick to plain soaps, and follow these recommendations:
• Wash your hands before preparing and eating food, and always after going to the bathroom and caring for small children.
• Wash your hands for at least fifteen seconds, time enough to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. Scrub your palms, the backs of your hands and wrists, and between your fingers. Remember to wash under your fingernails.
• If you have no running water, alcohol-based hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol work well.
• Studies have shown that many people don’t do a good enough job of washing their hands after visiting public restrooms. To avoid picking up germs those people leave on their hands, always use paper towels to turn off the faucet and to open the bathroom door as you leave.

Communication Tips for Kids

The Children’s National Health System Department of Psychiatry has published a fact sheet (PDF) about talking with children about a flu pandemic.

Other titles that may be informative:

Tiny Killers: When Bacteria and Viruses Attack

From the Series The Sickening History of Medicine
Interest Level: Grade 3 – Grade 6
Invisible microbes cause sickness by invading our bodies and multiplying. But doctors didn’t always know that sickness was caused by germs. Most people thought diseases came from smelly, damp air. But over time, those ideas changed. A Dutch scientist saw bacteria through his microscope. Doctors realized that when they washed their hands, fewer people died. And a doctor in London recognized that disease could spread through contaminated water. Because of these discoveries, people eventually learned that hygiene was the key to stopping disease. Hospitals used clean surgical instruments, and cities developed trash removal and sewage systems. Learn more about the discovery and defeat of bacteria!

Vaccination Investigation: The History and Science of Vaccines

NOTE: There is no vaccine against the coronavirus COVID-19 at the time of this post (February 24, 2020).

Interest Level: Grade 8 – Grade 12
Vaccines are biological substances that cause the human immune system to build up its defenses against specific diseases. Public health officials recommend a series of vaccines for all children, as well as some vaccines for teenagers and adults. But not everyone gets the vaccines they need. Many poor nations don’t have the resources to deliver vaccines to every community. Some parents refuse to have their children vaccinated because they don’t believe the evidence proving that vaccines are safe.
The effort to wipe out diseases using vaccines continues. Vaccine Investigation recounts the fascinating history of vaccines, their important role in protecting community health, and the excitement of cutting-edge research.

Coronavirus COVID-19 in the News

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Summary

World Health Organization, Coronavirus

The Hill, US hospitals prepare for potential coronavirus pandemic

New York Times, Is It a Pandemic Yet?

Read more about a different virus, Ebola, here.

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