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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH


I don’t know about you, but a few years back, when Pluto was demoted from planet status, I somehow felt a loss. It was a scientifically significant move, however, as there are strict definitions of just what a planet is. Now the COVID-19 novel coronavirus is officially a pandemic. What does this mean?

As the human race has spread across the world, so have infectious diseases. They have plagued (!) humanity since its earliest days. Mankind’s gradual transition to an agricultural society increased the scale and spread of these diseases dramatically. Widespread trade created new opportunities for human interactions, and that sped up epidemics. It was at that point that diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, influenza, and smallpox appeared. So, as we became more civilized with larger cities, exotic trade routes, and increased contact with different populations, pandemics started to appear.

A pandemic refers to the geographic spread of a disease; it is an epidemic that crosses international boundaries. The World Health Association (WHO) has declared that COVID-19 is a pandemic, stating that it was using the term because of deep concern over "alarming levels of inaction" over the virus. The term “pandemic” communicates how critical it is that countries throughout the world work cooperatively and openly with one another, come together as a united front, and utilize any and all resources available. There is currently a worldwide race to find both the first safe and effective vaccine, and to discover effective treatments.

Earlier pandemics killed more people (think Black Death during the 1300s), but the first truly global pandemic was declared in 1881 when cholera killed more than 1.5 million people worldwide. However, that was eclipsed by the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which was estimated to have infected some 500 million people (one-third of the world’s population!). It ended up killing approximately 50 million. More American soldiers in the First World War died from that flu pandemic than were killed in battle. More recently, we experienced the Asian Flu in 1957, the Hong Kong Flu in 1968, and most recently SARS, MERS, Ebola and now COVID-19.

Despite the persistence of disease throughout history, let’s remember that the one constant trend over time is a gradual reduction in death rates due to advancements in communication, knowledge of disease states and treatment, and overall higher levels of health.

Government cannot contain the COVID-19 pandemic alone. I urge each of you to act now in the very most responsible way. The rate and speed of spread of this disease directly depends on what each of us does in our own lives to distance ourselves from others. COVID-19 was initially recognized as having a far higher fatality rate for the sick and elderly, but new data suggests that even people ages 20-54 are being seriously affected. Please educate yourself about the risks of this disease. Please encourage your friends and family members to go out in public only when absolutely necessary. Please use soap and water, or antiseptic gel. We will only flatten that all-important curve, and change the course of this pandemic, with our individual efforts!

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