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Need to know ~ Topics & Events

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Colorized transmission electron microscope image of SARS-CoV-2

Image: NIAID, CC BY 2.0

Woman crossing the street in Times Square, NYC, March 22, 2020

Photo: JJxFile , CC BY-SA 4.0

Red Cross training, Washington, D.C., during the 1918 influenza pandemic

Photo: National Photo Company – Library of Congress, Public Domain

Why current?


By now, you have most likely gotten quite accustomed to hearing the word, “pandemic.”  Not only is it constantly mentioned in the news, it’s used by all of us, as we talk to one another about our lives.  “Since the pandemic started, I haven’t traveled.”  “The pandemic has caused so many businesses to close in our town.”  “I can’t believe all those people are crowded together.  Don’t they realize that we’re in the middle of a pandemic?”  “Once the pandemic is over, we’ll be able to hug each other again.”

But what is a pandemic, and how come we are now living in one?

We have to go all the way back to December 12, 2019 when many of us were going about our lives with no clue that we were on the verge of a global catastrophe.  In the Chinese city of Wuhan, some people had come down with a fever.  They also had trouble breathing.  Doctors weren’t sure why, but there was one thing these patients had in common: they had all been connected in some way to a market in Wuhan.  By early January 2020, a virus was identified as the cause of the illness in the cluster of the sick people.  It was a coronavirus that had not been seen before.

By January 22, 2020, the World Health Organization (see definition below) determined that this “novel” (= “new”) coronavirus was being spread through human contact, and by the end of the month, the outbreak of disease from the novel coronavirus was declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”  It had spread far beyond China’s borders.

On February 11, 2020, the disease got a name: “COVID-19” — a mash-up of “Coronavirus Disease 2019.”  Less than two weeks later, the virus intensified in Italy, and soon the government locked down the country.

In March 2020, global alarm skyrocketed.  The World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, i.e., a disease that had now spread pretty much throughout the world.  Then-U.S. President Donald Trump announced a nationwide emergency.  Many other countries shut down – literally.  Businesses closed.  Schools closed.  In some places, people were not allowed to leave their homes.  Air travel slowed dramatically, as evidenced by deserted airports and empty planes.  The world seemed to freeze for a moment, as the coronavirus ran rampant.

Scientists were racing to develop a vaccine to help halt the spread of the virus that had sickened and killed so many around the world.  On December 14, 2020, a nurse in New York was the first American to receive the newly-developed vaccine.  Ten days later, more than a million people in the U.S. had been vaccinated.

Since 2020, millions have died or gotten severely ill for long periods of time from Covid-19.  Many millions more got the disease, but have thankfully recovered.  It continues to afflict people all over the globe, especially as the virus mutates and forms variants that spread ever faster.  Many wonder about the future of pandemics caused by pathogens (= microorganisms that can cause disease), and scientists worry that the next one could be just on the horizon.  Are we prepared?

More about pandemics

Some terms to know

 epidemic vs. pandemic – You have probably heard both words.  Covid-19 was initially called an “epidemic,” namely, a disease that had suddenly afflicted a large number of people in a particular area.  Eventually, as the virus spread around the world, Covid-19 was declared a “pandemic,” which is just an epidemic that has affected people on a much larger scale (a whole country or the whole world).

pathogens – a term used to refer to microorganisms (such as bacteria and viruses) that can cause diseases. 

epidemiology – a field of medical science that includes the study of what causes diseases and how they are spread among certain populations. (Epidemiologists don’t only study diseases, though; they look at any topics related to the health of a population.)

virulent – capable of causing severe illness

The World Health Organization (WHO) – a branch of the United Nations whose purpose it is to address global health issues, including the control of diseases.  The organization also oversees health education and research worldwide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – a federal agency of the United States whose purpose it is to help prevent and respond to health threats that affect Americans. 

More about viruses and infectious diseases

– Viruses enter hosts (for example, human bodies), and replicate there.  The symptoms that result in the body that the virus now calls home, such as coughing and sneezing, are effective ways for the virus to travel from one host to another.  Because humans move around and interact with one another a lot, they are efficient carriers of viruses.  Everything from a handshake to a hug or even just an unintended and often unnoticed spray of virus-laden moisture from the mouth when talking can transport microbes from one person to another.

– Before modern times, when people didn’t know about the importance of sanitary practices, like washing one’s hands and keeping living and working environments clean, pathogens spread like wildfire, particularly through crowded cities.  Once sanitation improved and vaccines and antibiotics were developed, there was a dramatic drop in the spread of disease.

– However, this doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with the spread of deadly pathogens anymore.  COVID-19 is just one current example.  Scientists remain vigilant about new infectious diseases, which are popping up faster and faster.  Sars and HIV are two recent examples. 

– The number of outbreaks in the world has increased threefold in the last 40 years.  There are several reasons for this.  First, there are simply more humans on the planet.  This means that people live more closely together, enabling viruses to spread with increasing ease.   Secondly, we are living with more livestock than ever before.  This is convenient for viruses, many of which might start off in the animals that we raise and then hop over to us.  Another reason infectious diseases are spreading more rapidly these days is that the world has become so interconnected.  People quickly travel from one corner of the Earth to another – and viruses travel with them.  Climate change has contributed to the rise in new diseases, too, because the range of animals, which carry deadly pathogens –  in particular insects – has greatly expanded.  Finally, so-called “vaccine hesitancy” has been on the rise, due to lots of misinformation, which has been spreading almost as quickly and as dangerously as viruses.  In 2019, the WHO called the growth of the “anti-vaccination movement,” one of the “top ten public health threats” facing humanity.

Other pandemics of the past and present

To date, about 5.8 million people have lost their lives to Covid-19.  How does this pandemic, which has changed so much for so many, compare to pandemics of the past? 

1) The 6th Century – The Plague of Justinian was probably caused by the Bubonic Plague, which was an infection that was spread among humans by fleas living on rats, mice, and other rodents.  Some 50 million people were killed during that pandemic – almost half the world’s population at the time.

2) The 14th Century – The Black Death was likely caused by the same pathogen that killed so many during the Plague of Justinian.  It is estimated that 75-200 million people died worldwide. 

3) 1918 – During the 1918 flu pandemic 50-100 million people lost their lives.  The disease sickened one in three people around the globe.

4) The 20th Century – Smallpox caused some 300-500 million deaths.  By 1980, it was the first disease to be completely eliminated, thanks to a vaccine.

5) HIV is still with us, and to this day, there is no vaccine to prevent its spread.  It has caused over 30 million deaths since 1982 and has so far infected 75 million people.

Sources: Torrey, Trisha, verywellhealth.com, “Epidemic vs. Pandemic: What Are the Differences? ” https://www.verywellhealth.com/difference-between-epidemic-and-pandemic-2615168, December 9, 2021; Torrey, Trisha, verywellhealth.com, “Phases of a Pandemic,” https://www.verywellhealth.com/understanding-a-pandemic-2615488, September 21, 2020; Walsh, Bryan, bbc.com, “Covid-19: The history of pandemics,” https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200325-covid-19-the-history-of-pandemics.