29 April 2009

What’s the difference between a flu 'pandemic' and a flu 'epidemic'?

I got a pretty good grade in English ‘A’ level, have spent half my life studying how language actually works and have even managed to publish five books on the subject.

So it’s quite un-nerving to realise that I’m not at all sure what a ‘pandemic’ is, even though it was the only word used in the reports of ‘swine’ (why not ‘pig’) flu in last night’s BBC television news (and every other news report I've heard or read in the last few days).

In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the only person in the country who doesn’t know what it means, because journalists and broadcasters have taken to using the word ‘pandemic’ as if it’s perfectly obvious to everyone what a 'pandemic' is.

I definitely do know what an ‘epidemic’ is, because I had the misfortune to suffer from Asian flu during the Christmas holidays in 1957-8 – which I then had to pay for in hard labour, as one of the few ‘fags’ of my year fit enough to serve as a slave for the few prefects who were still well enough to need their shoes cleaning.

But I never heard anyone in the media or anywhere else use the word ‘pandemic’ at the time, and had never heard of it until a few years ago.

This has made me wonder if it’s yet another case of one word being replaced by another for no apparent reason – in the same way as journalists now insist on telling us that something is happening ‘ahead of’ rather than ‘before’ something else.

Dictionaries I’ve consulted haven’t been a lot of help, and the best I’ve been able to come up with so far is that a ‘pandemic’ seems to be an epidemic that spreads across more than one country.

Does this mean that the Asian flu ‘epidemic’ in the Winter of 1957-8, which certainly wasn’t confined to the UK, was in fact a ‘pandemic’?

If so, why didn’t anyone say so in 1957-8?

More to the point, can anyone explain to me why today’s media prefer the word 'pandemic' to ‘epidemic.’?

Or is it just that ‘pandemic’ sounds much more serious than 'epidemic' and makes the story sound more sensational?


Rowan Manahan said...

Hmmmm. The media probably likes it because of the plosive start to the word which will sound good and strong during headlines-at-the-top-of-the-hour.

Bill Bryson (dictionary of troublesome words) specifies that an 'epidemic refers only to an outbreak. When a disease ... is of long standing it is endemic."

Fowler (modern english usage) says 'endemic' refers to a disease that is habitually prevalent in a particular place; whereas an 'epidemic' is one which breaks out and lasts a time only.

The Oxford Medical Dictionary has pandemic as 'epidemic so widely spread that vast numbers of people in different countries are affected' and goes on to reference the Black Death (but not, interestingly, the 1918-19 flu). Origin: pan all demos the people

But I bet Sky News et al are using this term mostly because it sounds good. I am reminded of the early days of the Iraq war, when the embedded Sky reporters delivered their talking head pieces to camera wearing gas masks. How long will it be before we see Kay Burley wearing a colour-co-ordinated, sterile facemask?

Anonymous said...

Max, I was under the impression that you could theoretically have both an epidemc and a pandemic simultaneously.

An epidemic being a disease appearing in a large number of people at the same time, and a pandemic being a disease appearing in almost all of an area, group of people, animals or plants.

However, I don't think either of these have been paid much attention by the media. We've had so many epidemics that the next exciting thing is a pandemic.

Max Atkinson said...

And - now it's becoming clearer - 'pandemic' sounds more like 'panic' than boring old 'epidemic - so more than 50% of tonight's television news programmes were devoted to it, making us wait 15-20 minutes foe a mention of the arguably more important story of the government being defeated in the House of Commons.

Alberto Bacchelli said...

Hi Max,
first of all, thank you for blogging!

Then from the Oxford Dictionary of English, see USAGE in epidemic:

"A pandemic is a widespread epidemic that may affect entire continents or even the world"


generic viagra said...

hello the pandemic is when it reach more that 5 continents and a epidemic is when don get out for 1 continent so that is the difference about the 2 flu comparison.