The new coronavirus could become a pandemic: What is that? Should I be worried?
Health experts say a new coronavirus with origins in Wuhan, China, that has already killed more than a thousand people and sickened tens of thousands of people could become a pandemic — an unsettling and often misunderstood term.
In the minds of many, the word "pandemic" is closely connected to the 1918 flu pandemic that killed tens of millions of people, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told USA TODAY.
But by definition, a pandemic doesn't require that scale of destruction.
In reality, it's a loosely-defined term that can prompt overreaction, Fauci said.
Here's what you need to know about the possible upcoming pandemic of the novel coronavirus, 2019-nCoV.
What is a pandemic?
A pandemic is a global outbreak of a serious new illness that, by Fauci's definition, requires “sustained transmission throughout the world."
That's a variation of the World Health Organization's definition: "A pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease."
There is no strict definition for how serious the illness should be, and previous pandemics have varying fatality rates.
But a disease with the potential to spread around the world may not be as unusual as it sounds, according to William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University.
Advances in technology have made it easier to detect and track new diseases, he told USA TODAY. “Events like this probably happened in the past and never went defined because we didn’t have the science to make the diagnosis back then,” he said.
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Is a pandemic different than an epidemic?
Yes. While an epidemic describes an illness affecting a defined region, a pandemic has a global impact.
At this time, there is an epidemic of the new coronavirus in China, Fauci said. And currently the U.S. is experiencing a seasonal epidemic of the flu.
But the new coronavirus is not yet considered a pandemic, despite its spread to multiple countries.
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Fauci said there are several reasons for this. For one thing, the virus' spread in other countries has not yet been sustained for a significant amount of time. And since many of the cases outside China are related to travel, the virus' global impact isn't yet considered widespread.
Will the coronavirus become a pandemic?
There are some indications that it may, but experts can't say for sure.
“Given the nature of how easily it’s spreading in China, I would not be surprised if it evolved into a pandemic,” Fauci said.
That's an opinion echoed by Schaffner, who said he believes the virus has the potential to spread around the world.
Some doctors and researchers see parallels between a 2009 pandemic and the current threat of new coronavirus.
When a strain of H1N1 flu became a pandemic in 2009, it killed more than 12,000 and sickened over 60 million Americans in one year. But now, it circles the globe as a seasonal virus that causes limited health concerns.
Should you worry about a coronavirus pandemic?
Schaffner and Fauci agree it's too soon to know for sure what will happen with the virus.
Instead of worrying, educate yourself, suggests Schaffner. He believes U.S. health officials are taking "coordinated" and "forceful" steps — and he thinks its working.
Among those steps: The Trump administration declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a public health emergency in the U.S. in late January, setting quarantines of Americans who have recently been to certain parts of China.
Contributing: Ken Alltucker, Jayne O'Donnell and David Jackson