What is a pandemic? Why the WHO has declared coronavirus a pandemic - and what it means

WHO chief concerned by “alarming levels of inaction” among the world’s governments

A woman, right, sanitises her hands while undergoing screening at an entrance to the Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg. Picture: (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the global coronavirus crisis a pandemic after shying away from the term previously.

Initially, the Covid-19 outbreak - which started in China and has swept Europe and the USA - was referred to as an epidemic, but on 11 March the UN health agency started referring to it differently.

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So why is coronavirus now a Pandemic - and what does it mean?

Why did WHO declare coronavirus a pandemic?

The UN health agency appeared to want to shock lethargic countries into pulling out all the stops by referring to coronavirus as a “pandemic”.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: "We are deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction."

The WHO added that Iran and Italy are the new front lines of the battle against the virus that started in China.

"They're suffering but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation soon," said Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO's emergencies chief.

What is a pandemic?

The WHO defines a pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease, across several countries or continents, affecting a large number of people.”

Previously, coronavirus was referred to as an epidemic, which refers to a more localised or regional outbreak of a disease, rather than one that has spread across the globe.

A viral outbreak could be categorised as a pandemic if it is markedly different from recently circulating strains, and if humans have little or no immunity to it, according to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.

More than 121,000 people have been infected by coronavirus worldwide and over 4,300 have died.

Most cases have been recorded in Hubei province of China, where capital city, Wuhan, is the epicentre of the outbreak, but the virus has spread fast and there are now thousands of cases outside of China.

Which countries are worst affected by coronavirus?

There have been thousands of cases of the virus confirmed in more than 40 countries outside of China, including UK, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Thailand, Japan, Australia and USA.

In Europe, deaths have soared among Italy's ageing population, with 12,462 infections and 827 deaths - both numbers second only to China.

"If you want to be blunt, Europe is the new China," said Robert Redfield, the head of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that if the virus is not halted by vaccines and cures, up to 70% of the country's 83 million people could ultimately become infected, citing estimates that epidemiologists have been putting forward for several weeks.

Germany has some 1,300 confirmed infections.

Mrs Merkel's comments fit a pattern of government officials using sobering warnings to try to get people to protect themselves, most notably by washing their hands and not gathering in large numbers.

Iran reported another jump in deaths, by 62 to 354 - behind only China and Italy.

China has had more than 81,000 virus infections and over 3,000 deaths.

Has official advice changed now that coronavirus is a pandemic?

Dr Tedros said that calling the outbreak a pandemic did not mean the WHO was changing its advice, and said it’s not too late for countries to act.

He called on governments to change the course of the outbreak by taking "urgent and aggressive action".

"We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear," he said. "All countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilise their people in the response.”

Coronavirus: the facts

What is coronavirus?

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can affect lungs and airways. It is caused by a virus called coronavirus.

What caused coronavirus?

The outbreak started in Wuhan in China in December 2019 and it is thought that the virus, like others of its kind, has come from animals.

How is it spread?

As this is such a new illness, experts still aren’t sure how it is spread. But.similar viruses are spread in cough droplets. Therefore covering your nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing, and disposing of used tissues straight away is advised. Viruses like coronavirus cannot live outside the body for very long.

What are the symptoms?

The NHS states that the symptoms are: a dry cough, high temperature and shortness of breath - but these symptoms do not necessarily mean you have the illness. Look out for flu-like symptoms, such as aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose and a sore throat. It’s important to remember that some people may become infected but won’t develop any symptoms or feel unwell.

What precautions can be taken?

Washing your hands with soap and water thoroughly. The NHS also advises to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze; put used tissues in the bin immediately and try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell. Also avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth unless your hands are clean.

Should I avoid public places?

Most people who feel well can continue to go to work, school and public places and should only stay at home and self isolate if advised by a medical professional or the coronavirus service.

What should I do if I feel unwell?

Don’t go to your GP but instead call NHS 111 or look online at the coronavirus service that can tell you if you need medical help and what to do next.

When to call NHS 111

NHS 111 should be used if you feel unwell with coronavirus symptoms, have been in a country with a high risk of coronavirus in the last 14 days or if you have been in close contact with someone with the virus.

Sources: World Health Organisation and NHS