Pandemics: Risks, Impacts, and Mitigation

In: Disease Control Priorities: Improving Health and Reducing Poverty. 3rd edition. Washington (DC): The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank; 2017 Nov 27. Chapter 17.


Pandemics are large-scale outbreaks of infectious disease that can greatly increase morbidity and mortality over a wide geographic area and cause significant economic, social, and political disruption. Evidence suggests that the likelihood of pandemics has increased over the past century because of increased global travel and integration, urbanization, changes in land use, and greater exploitation of the natural environment (Jones and others 2008; Morse 1995). These trends likely will continue and will intensify. Significant policy attention has focused on the need to identify and limit emerging outbreaks that might lead to pandemics and to expand and sustain investment to build preparedness and health capacity (Smolinsky, Hamburg, and Lederberg 2003).

The international community has made progress toward preparing for and mitigating the impacts of pandemics. The 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic and growing concerns about the threat posed by avian influenza led many countries to devise pandemic plans (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2005). Delayed reporting of early SARS cases also led the World Health Assembly to update the International Health Regulations (IHR) to compel all World Health Organization member states to meet specific standards for detecting, reporting on, and responding to outbreaks (WHO 2005). The framework put into place by the updated IHR contributed to a more coordinated global response during the 2009 influenza pandemic (Katz 2009). International donors also have begun to invest in improving preparedness through refined standards and funding for building health capacity (Wolicki and others 2016).

Despite these improvements, significant gaps and challenges exist in global pandemic preparedness. Progress toward meeting the IHR has been uneven, and many countries have been unable to meet basic requirements for compliance (Fischer and Katz 2013; WHO 2014). Multiple outbreaks, notably the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic, have exposed gaps related to the timely detection of disease, availability of basic care, tracing of contacts, quarantine and isolation procedures, and preparedness outside the health sector, including global coordination and response mobilization (Moon and others 2015; Pathmanathan and others 2014). These gaps are especially evident in resource-limited settings and have posed challenges during relatively localized epidemics, with dire implications for what may happen during a full-fledged global pandemic.

For the purposes of this chapter, an epidemic is defined as “the occurrence in a community or region of cases of an illness . . . clearly in excess of normal expectancy” (Porta 2014). A pandemic is defined as “an epidemic occurring over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries, and usually affecting a large number of people” (Porta 2014). Pandemics are, therefore, identified by their geographic scale rather than the severity of illness. For example, in contrast to annual seasonal influenza epidemics, pandemic influenza is defined as “when a new influenza virus emerges and spreads around the world, and most people do not have immunity” (WHO 2010).

This chapter does not consider endemic diseases—those that are constantly present in particular localities or regions. Endemic diseases are far more common than pandemics and can have significant negative health and economic impacts, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) with weak health systems. Additionally, given the lack of historical data and extreme uncertainty regarding bioterrorism, this chapter does not specifically consider bioterrorism-related events, although bioterrorism could hypothetically lead to a pandemic.

This chapter covers the following findings concerning the risks, impacts, and mitigation of pandemics as well as knowledge gaps:

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