What is a pandemic?

By Ella Pickover, PA Health Correspondent
·3-min read

The World Health Organisation (WHO) have said that the coronavirus outbreak can be classed as a pandemic.

But what does it mean?

Here are your questions answered.

– What is a pandemic?

A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease.

– Why is it now classed as one?

The classification comes as WHO announced that there are more than 118,000 cases across 114 countries. So far 4,291 people have lost their lives.

– When was the last one?

This is the first coronavirus to cause a pandemic.

In recent history coronaviruses which had pandemic potential were Serious Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in 2002/03, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) in 2012.

Tamiflu – Swine flu medication
Swine flu was declared a pandemic (Rui Vieira/PA)

The last major respiratory outbreak classed as a pandemic was Swine Flu which started in 2009.

– Does it make a difference in what is being done?

WHO said the assessment “It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”

– What has WHO suggested?

The global health body said that it was “deeply concerned by the alarming levels of inaction”, as it called for countries to take “urgent and aggressive action”.

– What does this mean for the UK?

The UK has already set out it’s battle plan to fight coronavirus which includes four main steps: to contain the disease; delay its onset; conduct research and mitigate its effects should transmission of the virus become established in the UK.

The classification of a pandemic will not change the current approach but the plan is under constant review.

– What have the experts said?

Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said: “The characterisation of the situation as a pandemic may mean that we see countries feel incentivised to implement further larger interventions, such as banning of public gatherings, sooner than would they were otherwise planning to.”

Dr Nathalie MacDermott, academic clinical lecturer in paediatric infectious diseases at King’s College London, added: “This decision will likely have been made on the basis of the majority of the world’s continents now seeing significant and ongoing person to person spread of SARS-COV2.”

– What can I do?

The new classification does not change guidance for what people can do to avoid catching or spreading coronavirus.

Here are the current steps advised by the government for the general public: Maintain good hand hygiene, wash your hands with soap and water often for at least 20 seconds.

Cheltenham Festival 2020 – Champion Day – Cheltenham Racecourse
Racegoers use hand sanitisers at Cheltenham (Simon Cooper/PA)

If soap and water are not available use hand sanitiser; cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve when you cough and sneeze, dispose of tissues straight away and wash your hands afterwards; try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell; try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean.