Epidemics & Pandemics

After all it really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic. - Margaret Chan

There can be no doubt that another epidemic/pandemic will occur. What is not certain is the extent of the event will it reach the severity of the major 1918 Spanish flu pandemic or be classified as a minor pandemic like the 1958 flu.

When an infectious disease spreads so rapidly that the numbers of new infections rise exponentially rather than increasing in a consistent manner. It is considered an epidemic. During an epidemic the numbers of new infections can double every few days.

When an epidemic spreads from one continent to another. Instead of being confined to a geographical area. It is considered a pandemic. A true pandemic causes a high degree of mortality.

Pandemic and epidemics have occurred throughout history.

  • 541 - 750 Plague of Justinian
  • 1346 - 1353 Black Death
  • 1855 - 1959 Third Plague
  • 1863 - 1875 Fourth cholera
  • 1899 - 1923 Cholera
  • 1918 - 1920 Spanish Flu
  • 1961 - 1962 El Tor
  • 1980 - HIV/AIDS
  • 2009 - Swine Influenza

World Health Organization Pandemic Phases

Disruption of Essential Public Services and Supplies

High population density is an undeniable influence that increases the spread of virulent organisms, including influenza. The last major pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918. The worlds population at that time was 1.6 billion, and it estimated that 17% of the population lived in an urban settings. There were only 15 cities with a population that exceeded 1 million. Today the world's population is above 7 billion, of which almost half live in urban environments that occupy only 3% of the earths surface. There are over 400 cities with populations that exceed 1 million.

Today's cities and to a large extent even rural areas are dependent on a highly coordinated effort by many people to provide the necessary goods and services required to function and survive. The ability to achieve these collaborative tasks would be disrupted by widespread illness and death.

The interdependency of both government and commercial entities in today's society greatly increases the risk of a systematic failure. A reaction known as "domino effect", results when a failure of one critical system leads to the failure of another and so on until the entire system collapses.

In an extreme event the resulting chaos could be accompanied by a period of temporary anarchy especially within large urban centers.

Healthcare Services:

In the event of a major pandemic, hospitals and healthcare services will be quickly overwhelmed. While the first victims of a pandemic will receive excellent treatment, once the pandemic settles in, hospitals will begin to be full. The staff will be sick themselves, with some even succumbing to the disease. Hospitals will face shortages of everything from drugs and IV fluids to equipment. Before long, all available resources could become exhausted.

It is very likely that a pandemic would quickly exhaust available food, energy and medical resources, replacements may not be forthcoming. Thus, supply chain issues are expected to seriously compound the impacts of an influenza pandemic.


Modern food production and distribution relies on low levels of inventory, particularly to avoid wastes of perishable products on store shelves. On average, supermarkets have between 2 to 5 days of inventory of perishable goods (dairy, produce, meat) and about 1 to 2 weeks for other goods (pasta, canned goods, etc.). In the case of a pandemic, available food supplies could quickly be exhausted through hoarding behavior.


The provision and distribution of energy is critical to the functioning of a modern economy and society. For instance, about 40% of the world's supply of electricity is generated by burning coal (50% for the United States). Coal power plants maintain a fairly low stockpile, about 30 days, and rely on a constant supply from major coal mining regions, which tend to be far away. While a pandemic would not directly damage energy systems, many energy distribution systems could be threatened through the removal of essential personnel from the workplace for weeks or months and impaired transportation capabilities to supply power plants.

Transportation and Pandemics

The Spanish flu of 1918 was able to spread across the globe using limited travel conditions in a mere 6 weeks. Today's modern transportation provides a far more faster and efficient means for an infectious disease to be transmitted around the world. In addition to the efficiency of modern travel, today's transportation industry provides services to a vastly larger amount of passengers.

Passengers using modern international and log distance modes of transportation, have an increased risk of exposure and thus the ability to transmit infectious diseases. The incubation time for the average influenza virus is between 1 and 4 days, more than enough time for an infected passenger to travel across the world, before symptoms appear.

Possible future Pandemics

There are approximately 1,500 microbes that are known to be a source of disease among the human population. Some of these diseases like HIV/AIDS, SARS, Influenza, Viral hemorrhagic fevers, and Nipah have caused regional or global epidemics that resulted in high mortality rate and/or significant economic losses.

Population growth and expanded interactions between people, animals and the environment over the coming decades are expected to increase the emergence of new pandemic threats. About 75 percent of new human diseases are caused by microbes that originate in animals.