As the World Gets Smaller and Flatter, the Threat of Pandemics Increases

by Pallav Regmi, age 12

The H1N1, also known as swine flu, was a pandemic that started in 2008 in Mexico.  It was mistaken by as regular flu the people of Mexico until the identification of the new H1N1 in April 2009.  The World Health Organization (WHO) defines an epidemic as any infectious disease that affects many people in one country.  A pandemic, however, occurs in more than one place, in two or more countries, or all over the world.

These days epidemics can become pandemics faster than ever before in history. This is because of increases in global transportation and urbanization, as in the example of the swine flu.

The WHO’s definition does not require the disease to be dangerous or have a specific time line to qualify as a pandemic.  Some, like influenza, last just a few years. On the other hand, some pandemics like HIV/AIDS last decades.  In addition, these diseases are not always transmitted directly between humans.  For example, malaria is passed indirectly through mosquitoes.

Most influenza breakouts are not pandemics.  Seasonal flu follows predictable patterns, and thus many people have built up some form of immunity.  But when a flu strain emerges from non-humans such as pigs, rats, or chickens, or is entirely new and there is no immunity to it, it can become a pandemic.  It is believed the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed millions of people all over the world came from birds.

Although a pandemic can spread around the world and an epidemic is confined in one country, an epidemic can be just as deadly as a pandemic or any other deadly disease.

[Sources: Science Illustrated; American Scientist]