Pandemics – isn’t it just a bad case of the flu?

What is a pandemic?

The word ‘pandemic’ comes from the Greek “pan” (all) and “demos” (people or population), meaning ‘all the people.’ In health terminology, the word pandemic refers to the worldwide spread of a new disease. It infects more people than an epidemic and is often caused by a new virus or strain of the virus that has not circulated for a long time. Typically, immunity is low and the virus spreads quickly by person-to-person transmission. Pandemics are usually associated with higher numbers of deaths and create a disruption of society, economy and individuals.

Have there been previous pandemics of greater magnitude in the past? There have been major pandemics during the course of human history with the Black Death (bubonic plague) caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis being perhaps the best known. However, this is one of many pandemics that have arisen and thankfully gone away.

The Spanish Flu was an influenza outbreak that spread across the globe between 1918-20. It is estimated to have infected 500 million people and caused the death of approximately 50 million (some estimate the toll to be as high as 100 million!).

We are living during the most challenging crisis of this generation. The world pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2 virus has the potential to be the most severe pandemic caused by a virus of all time. At the time of writing, there were approximately 23 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 (coronavirus disease) and more than 800 000 deaths reported worldwide.

Doctor wearing protection mask against covid taking notes during consultation with patient in medical clinic.

The impact on individual lives of the disease has unfortunately been felt by many, with the virus being highly contagious and causing a relatively high fatality rate in vulnerable populations. While many numbers are put forward when discussing mortality due to COVID-19, what we do know is that crude mortality ratio (the number of reported deaths divided by the reported cases) from seasonal flu is typically around 0.1%. For COVID-19, it is in the region of 3-4%. This is a marked difference from seasonal flu and a major reason for the fear driving the decisions of governments worldwide. This is an understandable response when we are in the situation where medications are used as a last resort, rather than for prevention or treatment.

What can we learn from previous pandemics? They have a beginning and an end. While there is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, each day that passes we are seeing a slow unravelling of this mysterious virus and the secrets it hides from medical researchers. The amount of research conducted on SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19 already is overwhelming and continues to increase.

This novel coronavirus has managed to cripple economies and harm the most vulnerable members of our communities. Nevertheless, the coordinated effort of governments and researchers is bearing fruit with several vaccines in various stages of clinical trials. Whilst we do not have a date for availability of the first commercially produced vaccine, there is now the hope of prevention and light at the end of what has felt like a long dark tunnel.

Do not treat COVID-19 as ‘a bad case of the flu.’ This virus is now suspected to cause ongoing symptoms in some who have been infected and ‘recovered.’ There is still so much to learn about this virus. As always, prevention is better than cure. Keep yourself fit through regular physical activity, eating a healthy diet and observing the social distancing and infection control measures recommended. Get tested if you have symptoms of a cold or flu to protect those around you. We are living in unusual times, where uncertainty is the only certainty. History tells us we will beat this pandemic, we need to be patient and work towards this goal together.


WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard


CDC (2018). Influenza milestones

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About the author

Dr Roy is a medical practitioner with over 25 years’ experience working in tertiary and primary care. He previously trained and worked in Victoria but currently resides in tropical north Queensland, teaching the next generation of doctors.  He is passionate about education, for health care profes ... more

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