As you can tell, it is difficult to differentiate between an epidemic and a pandemic from their definitions alone. The definition of a pandemic tells us it is an ‘epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area … affecting a large number of people
’. One might contest, then, that a meningitis epidemic (such as those that occur in the ‘meningitis belt’ of sub-Saharan Africa each year) could also be classed as a pandemic. After all, thousands of people in this region – which consists of 26 countries - died every year of MenA meningitis epidemics
until a vaccine was introduced in 2010.
So, given that the dictionary definitions of pandemic and epidemic
are so similar, why does it matter that WHO have labelled COVID-19 a pandemic – but not meningitis?
Pandemics in politics
Throughout history, the word pandemic has been used to trigger collective global action
against a large scale epidemic. In their COVID-19 reclassification announcement
, WHO stated that decision to label COVID-19 a pandemic was due to ‘alarming levels of spread and severity’ alongside ‘alarming levels of inaction’.
Labelling COVID-19 a ‘pandemic’ prompts governments around the world to take the epidemic seriously. As WHO puts it, the use of the word pandemic is an ‘alarm bell, loud and clear’.
Why isn’t meningitis also a pandemic?
In the past, meningitis has
been classed as a pandemic. As WHO explains, ‘the most recent meningococcal meningitis pandemic began in the mid-1990s. In 1996, almost 190,000 cases were notified to WHO in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and other countries.
However, this was rapidly brought under control thanks to a tremendous international effort to develop and implement an effective vaccine.
Vaccination has proven to be an effective tool in combatting the spread of meningitis.
Meningitis outbreaks and epidemics are devastating, but fortunately we do have tools to bring them under control - chiefly vaccines
. Because we can
take early action to control outbreaks and epidemics, they rarely reach pandemic status. However, with 5 million people affected each year, it is vital that we extend control of meningitis and do more to prevent epidemics and outbreaks which do occur every year. Although no single vaccine exists to prevent meningitis, there are vaccines available against many of its most common forms. These vaccines may not necessarily be widely available to all, but they do exist. Sadly, there is currently no vaccine available to prevent COVID-19, which means that it is much more difficult to bring this virus under control.
Meningitis is a serious disease which devastates lives around the world every single year. Although some parts of the world are affected more than others, it is absolutely a global health issue. At Meningitis Research Foundation, we are working hard to raise awareness of its importance on the worlds stage, and prompt much greater collective action to defeat meningitis – wherever it exists – by 2030
Robust health systems around the world are vital in making this happen, and robust health systems will not exist without cohesive action against COVID-19. We urge everyone to follow WHO
guidance in order to help defeat the Coronavirus pandemic as soon as possible.