Q: Good Evening, Dr. Hull.
Call me a nerd, but I am wondering what is the difference between a plague and a pandemic? I am trying to learn more about COVID, and now I’m curious: what is the difference between a pandemic and a plague?
I know this isn’t something most people think about, but as a person who once had a brief obsession with epidemiology, it’s simply for my understanding.
If the plague is indeed a specific disease, why is COVID-19 also not considered to be a plague? What would qualify any present or future diseases from being called a plague versus a pandemic?
I’m not understanding the difference here with all the stuff I’m hearing on the news.
A: Wow, what a question.
You’re right – this isn’t something most people think about!
A plague doesn’t have to be just about disease or health – there can be plagues of locust, for example. So a plague is a large number of harmful or annoying things that ends in mass death of plants or animals generated by Nature.
A health plague is an infectious disease caused by bacteria from an animal (commonly a rat) that spreads to insects and then to humans that can end in human death (like from ticks and mosquitos that draw human blood).
In the past, we labeled diseases that spread across country borders as plagues because they killed many people, like the Black Plague. COVID fits this definition except that the origin has not been determined to be natural or man-made, and an accurate number of deaths isolated to COVID only – the accurate death count – is still unclear.
Statisticians always look at the death counts, but the hospitals didn’t separate the COVID deaths from people who also had the flu, pneumonia, or co-morbidities like cancer.
So, technically according to the definition used by statisticians, COVID itself isn’t a plague because the death count isn’t high enough.
A pandemic is an outbreak of a disease that crosses country borders, infecting a significant proportion of the population. Pandemics only apply to disease and health, they don’t necessarily cause mass deaths but do cause mass illness, and are typically sudden and rapidly spreading.
They generally result in mass confusion and fear. This is where the word pandemonium comes from.
An epidemic is an outbreak of a disease that spreads quickly and affects many things at the same time. An epidemic doesn’t have to be just about disease or health – there can be outbreaks or epidemics of robberies, for example. An epidemic is a product of a sudden rapid spread, growth, or development of something that’s both natural or man-made.
Epidemics can be stopped once identified and then the proper procedures can be put into place; epidemics don’t always cause massive deaths.
Many statisticians, doctors, and scientists are currently debating the total deaths from COVID so they can get these numbers into the history books correctly. I think what labels the “disease” in the long-run is the death count, which again when isolated from co-morbidities, the death counts are not that proportionally high, according to statisticians.
So technically, COVID isn’t a plague or epidemic but a pandemic.
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