A pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that is spreading through human populations across a large region; for instance a continent, or even worldwide. A widespread endemic disease that is stable in terms of how many people are getting sick from it is not a pandemic. Further, flu pandemics exclude seasonal flu, unless the flu of the season is a pandemic. Throughout history there have been a number of pandemics, such as smallpox and tuberculosis. More recent pandemics include the HIV pandemic and the 2009 flu pandemic.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has produced a six-stage classification that describes the process by which a novel influenza virus moves from the first few infections in humans through to a pandemic. This starts with the virus mostly infecting animals, with a few cases where animals infect people, then moves through the stage where the virus begins to spread directly between people, and ends with a pandemic when infections from the new virus have spread worldwide.
A disease or condition is not a pandemic merely because it is widespread or kills many people; it must also be infectious. For instance, cancer is responsible for many deaths but is not considered a pandemic because the disease is not infectious or contagious.
In a virtual press conference in May 2009 on the influenza pandemic Dr Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General ad Interim for Health Security and Environment, WHO said "An easy way to think about pandemic ... is to say: a pandemic is a global outbreak. Then you might ask yourself: “What is a global outbreak”? Global outbreak means that we see both spread of the agent ... and then we see disease activities in addition to the spread of the virus."
In planning for a possible influenza pandemic the WHO published a document on pandemic preparedness guidance in 1999, revised in 2005 and during the 2009 outbreak, defining phases and appropriate actions for each phase in an aide memoire entitled ''WHO pandemic phase descriptions and main actions by phase''. All versions of this document refer to influenza. The phases are defined by the spread of the disease; virulence and mortality are not mentioned in the current WHO definition, although these factors have previously been included.
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Last Updated: Feb 1, 2011