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Pandemic or Not, Addiction Deserves Attention

April 30, 2009
by Ron Hunsicker
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Periodically we become inundated with a word or a phrase gets used and over used. The most recent of such words is pandemic! Almost every newspaper has had a front page article on the “impending pandemic” for the past week. All of the evening news broadcasts lead with a story on pandemic. So I thought I would go to the dictionary and attempt to discover just what it is that is causing the stir.

According to the on line encyclopedia, Wikipedia – a pandemic is: A pandemic (from Greek παν pan all + δήμος demos people) is an epidemic infectious disease that spreads through populations across a large region; for instance a continent, or even worldwide. This very helpful encyclopedia then went on to provide some even greater clarity about this word.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a pandemic can start when three conditions have been met:

  • Emergence of a disease new to a population.
  • Agents infect humans, causing serious illness.
  • Agents spread easily and sustainably among humans.

A disease or condition is not a pandemic merely because it is widespread or kills many people; it must also be infectious. For instance, cancer is responsible for many deaths but is not considered a pandemic, because the disease is not infectious or contagious.

So now you know about as much as I do about pandemic. I certainly do not want to diminish at all the devastation which has been experienced in many parts of the world and the potential devastation which may impact the US. An infection on the loose could be the last straw for many families and many individuals who have been impacted by the economic disaster which has also been running loose across this country.

Since the definition is pretty clear that to be a pandemic it needs to be infectious, than alcoholism does not quality. We simply need to find another term that describes a disease that spreads easily and which devastates individuals and communities. The imminent swine flu pandemic has caused countries to close borders, countries to cancel flights to select other countries, countries to commit millions of dollars and resources to distribute vaccine throughout communities and others to close schools and to cancel large gatherings. Those are serious steps all taken in the last week and all taken in response to one reported death in the US and about 100 confirmed cases of the flu.

What about the over 23 million Americans who meet the criteria substance use dependence? What about the families of those 23 million who have had their lives devastated because of this illness? It may not be a pandemic, but it sure is a crisis!




Prevention is the key to reducing substance abuse. The first step is education for children so that 9-13 year olds will learn 1) the history of tobacco, 2) the establishment of tobacco plantations with the use of slave labor, 3)Civil war to retain or end slavery.4) the addictive nature of tobacco after short use, 5) The advertisement of tobacco as an attractive option,6) health and financial consequences of tobacco addiction. France has found this system effective to reduce tobacco use for adolescents.

Ron, you are absolutely right, and thank you for clarifying that a pandemic requires a disease to be infectious. If the world responded to addiction like it has to this flu outbreak, so many more lives would be saved and so much misery avoided.

I understand that substance use/abuse is contagious through social contact. If a person begins to spend alot of time with people who are heavy users of drugs or alcohol, it is likely they may begin to use in the same way. Is this social contagion of a behavioral illness? This is exactly why we do prevention activities in communities, to reduce the spread of this serious illness.