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What’s the Difference Between Pandemic, Epidemic and Outbreak?

Health + Wellness
What’s the Difference Between Pandemic, Epidemic and Outbreak?
A volunteer from Blue Sky Rescue wears a protective suit as she fumigates and disinfects outside an area of a local bus station on March 7, 2020 in Beijing, China. Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

By Rebecca S.B. Fischer

The coronavirus is on everyone's minds. As an epidemiologist, I find it interesting to hear people using technical terms – like quarantine or super spreader or reproductive number – that my colleagues and I use in our work every day.


But I'm also hearing newscasters and neighbors alike mixing up three important words: outbreak, epidemic and pandemic.

Simply put, the difference between these three scenarios of disease spread is a matter of scale.

Outbreak

Small, but unusual.

By tracking diseases over time and geography, epidemiologists learn to predict how many cases of an illness should normally happen within a defined period of time, place and population. An outbreak is a noticeable, often small, increase over the expected number of cases.

Imagine an unusual spike in the number of children with diarrhea at a daycare. One or two sick kids might be normal in a typical week, but if 15 children in a daycare come down with diarrhea all at once, that is an outbreak.

When a new disease emerges, outbreaks are more noticeable since the anticipated number of illnesses caused by that disease was zero. An example is the cluster of pneumonia cases that sprung up unexpectedly among market-goers in Wuhan, China. Public health officials now know the spike in pneumonia cases there constituted an outbreak of a new type of coronavirus, now named SARS-CoV-2.

As soon as local health authorities detect an outbreak, they start an investigation to determine exactly who is affected and how many have the disease. They use that information to figure out how best to contain the outbreak and prevent additional illness.

Epidemic

Bigger and spreading.

An epidemic is an outbreak over a larger geographic area. When people in places outside of Wuhan began testing positive for infection with SARS-CoV-2 (which causes the disease known as COVID-19), epidemiologists knew the outbreak was spreading, a likely sign that containment efforts were insufficient or came too late. This was not unexpected, given that no treatment or vaccine is yet available. But widespread cases of COVID-19 across China meant that the Wuhan outbreak had grown to an epidemic.

Pandemic

International and out of control.

In the most classical sense, once an epidemic spreads to multiple countries or regions of the world, it is considered a pandemic. However, some epidemiologists classify a situation as a pandemic only once the disease is sustained in some of the newly affected regions through local transmission.

To illustrate, a sick traveler with COVID-19 who returns to the U.S. from China doesn't make a pandemic, but once they infect a few family members or friends, there's some debate. If new local outbreaks ensue, epidemiologists will agree that efforts to control global spread have failed and refer to the emerging situation as a pandemic.

Terms Are Political, Not Just Medical

Epidemiologists are principally concerned with preventing disease, which may be fundamentally different than the broader concerns of governments or international health organizations.

As of this writing, the World Health Organization classifies the risk of global COVID-19 spread as "very high," the highest level in their risk classification scheme and one step below an official pandemic declaration. This means that the WHO remains hopeful that, by taking aggressive steps now, containment of localized outbreaks may still be possible.

But I and other scientists and public health officials are already calling this a pandemic. The official numbers count an excess of 100,000 cases in almost 100 countries, and community spread has been documented in the U.S. and elsewhere. By the classical definition, it's a pandemic.

A formal declaration of COVID-19 or any other infectious disease as pandemic tells governments, agencies and aid organizations worldwide to shift efforts from containment to mitigation. It has economic, political and societal impacts on a global scale.

Formal declaration needn't incite fear or cause you to stockpile surgical masks. It doesn't mean the virus has become more infectious or more deadly, nor that your personal risk of getting the disease is greater. But it will be a historical event.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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