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An epidemic is a rapidly spreading contagious infectious disease in the sense of an epidemic or an "older term for a threatening and rapidly spreading disease" and, in a narrower sense, an illness of numerous living beings from a threatening and highly contagious infectious disease that occurs at a time and location. According to Manfred Vasold, it is a "highly contagious infectious disease with a relatively short incubation period " such as the epidemic diseases smallpox , measles and flu , which often occurs over a large area as a wave-like spread of epidemics , such as cholera and plague .

Etymology and history of the term epidemic

The word “epidemic” (from Middle High German siuche ) is an abstraction too siech (“weak, sick”) and goes back to Old High German siuhhī , among other things in the sense of “general disease that weakens the whole body or a disease of the whole area, of the whole clan or herd ”.

An epidemic used to be a "contagious disease that can spread more generally, since the healthy can be infected by those suffering from the same disease", but also (in the 17th century) the "disease substance that spreads through the whole body or the country goes ".

This earlier term "has an emotional quality, conjures up images of horror, danger, of mass misery and death". According to Johanna Bleker and Marina Stöffler-Meilicke, epidemic came into use in the 18th century as a replacement for the term plague or pestilence , the latter serving as a generic term for mass illnesses and deaths. This epidemic term hardly takes into account the diseases that are always present, but "describes more or less suddenly occurring mass diseases". The disease "was not defined by the cause, but by the intensity and suddenness of the occurrence". Epidemics in the old sense were dramatic events. This is also due to the fact that the knowledge of transmission by pathogens did not begin until 1876 through the work of Robert Koch .

The contagiousness ( ability to transmit) and infectiousness (ability to cause an infection in a host) as well as the type, severity and lethality (fatality) of the disease caused determine the type and extent of an epidemic. Typical is a serious course of such virulent infectious diseases, to " infirmity can cause" or death.

The outdated term loimology exists for epidemic theory (from the Greek loimos "plague, epidemic", for equation see above). The term epidemic research was and is still partly used as a term for research into infectious diseases (including their spread), which is now the subject of epidemiology or, more precisely, infection epidemiology . For example, there is the Friedrich Loeffler Institute on the island of Riems for research into animal diseases .

Current technical terminology

In modern technical terminology, the term has largely been replaced by infection (e.g. epidemic protection through infection control , epidemic hygiene through infection hygiene, epidemic events through infection events, epidemiology through infection epidemiology). In the context of biological hazards and highly contagious, life-threatening diseases, terms associated with the term epidemic are still in use (e.g. epidemic hygiene management, epidemic alarm plan).

Epidemiological clusters of infectious diseases are divided into three groups in epidemiology depending on the type of temporal and spatial spread.

In human medicine :

  • Epidemic with temporally and spatially limited accumulation
  • Endemic with spatially limited, temporally unlimited accumulation
  • Pandemic with a time-limited, spatially unlimited accumulation

In veterinary medicine :

  • Epizooty with temporally and spatially limited accumulation
  • Enzootics with spatially limited, temporally unlimited accumulation
  • Panzootie with temporally limited, spatially unlimited accumulation

As a rule, epidemics are subject to an obligation to report or notify public authorities. In the individual states (possibly with specifications in federal states or cantons) there are corresponding legal bases for this. In Germany this is regulated by the Infection Protection Act (formerly the Federal Disease Act ), in Switzerland by the Epidemic Act . In Austria this is regulated in four different laws . There are corresponding regulations for animal diseases . In Germany these must be reported to the veterinary office . In Switzerland there is the information system for epidemic reports from the cantons (InfoSM) with mandatory reports to the cantonal veterinary offices.

Other uses of the term disease

Pollution or contamination , the contamination by substances, particularly pollutants by micro-organisms, biological toxins, chemical substances or radioactivity.

Contamination is the medical term used to describe the extent to which an endemic infectious disease is spread. In contrast to the conventional prevalence , people are also counted who suffered from the disease but are healthy again, as well as those who are verifiably infected with the relevant pathogen but show no clinical signs of disease.

See also


  • 21st century epidemics. Discovery Channel . 3 episodes, 150 min. German DVD first release: July 28, 2003.
  • Shadow of Death - The Story of Plagues. BR-alpha . 6 episodes, 180 min. Germany 2010 ( online ).
  • Influenza, plague and cholera - the story of the great epidemics. ZDF history , 31 min. German premiere: March 1, 2020 ( online ).


  • Mary Dobson: Plagues That Changed the World. From cholera to SARS. Translated from the English by Meike Grow and Ute Mareik. G + J, Hamburg 2009, ISBN 978-3-86690-094-3 .
  • Reinhard Güll: Epidemics: ineradicable scourges of humanity? In: Statistical monthly magazine Baden-Württemberg. Issue 10/2013, pp. 38–43 ( PDF ).
  • Jens Jacobsen: Shadow of Death. The story of the epidemics. Philipp von Zabern, Darmstadt 2012, ISBN 978-3-8053-4538-5 .
  • Kari Köster-Lösche : The great epidemics. From the plague to AIDS. 1989, ISBN 3-458-33381-9 ; also Frankfurt am Main 1995.
  • Jacques Ruffié, Jean-Charles Sournia: The epidemics in human history. 4th enlarged edition. Translated from the French by Brunhild Seeler. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2000, ISBN 3-608-94001-4 .
  • Malte Thießen (ed.): Infected Europe. Epidemics in the long 20th century. De Gruyter Oldenbourg, Munich 2014, ISBN 978-3-11-036434-7 .
  • Manfred Vasold: Plague, hardship and severe plagues. Plagues and epidemics from the Middle Ages to the present day. CH Beck, Munich 1991, ISBN 3-406-35401-7 .
  • Manfred Vasold: flu, plague and cholera. A history of epidemics in Europe. Steiner, Stuttgart 2015, ISBN 978-3-515-11025-9 .
  • Carl Christian Wahrmann, Martin Buchsteiner, Antje Strahl (eds.): Epidemic and human. Challenge over the centuries. (= Historical Research. Volume 95). Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 2012, ISBN 978-3-428-13701-5 .
  • Stefan Winkle : Cultural history of epidemics. Komet, Düsseldorf / Zurich 1997, ISBN 3-933366-54-2 (3rd, improved and expanded edition under the title Scourges of mankind. Cultural history of epidemics. Artemis & Winkler, Düsseldorf / Zurich 2005, ISBN 978-3-538- 07159-9 ).

Web links

Wiktionary: Plague  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Federal health reporting: Epidemics, epidemics .
  2. a b c Wolfgang Kiehl: Specialized dictionary A – Z. (PDF) In: Infection Protection and Infection Epidemiology Technical Terms - Definitions - Interpretations. Robert Koch Institute , p. 34 (or 17, 119) , accessed on March 15, 2020 . Berlin 2015, ISBN 978-3-89606-258-1 .
  3. a b Plague on Pschyrembel Online
  4. Manfred Vasold: Plague trains. In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 1323 f.
  5. ^ Max Höfler: German book of names of diseases. Piloty & Loehle, Munich 1899 (Reprographic reprint: Olms, Hildesheim and New York 1970 and 1979, ISBN 1-174-35859-9 ), pp. 640–644, here: p. 640.
  6. ^ Friedrich Kluge , Alfred Götze : Etymological dictionary of the German language . 20th edition. Edited by Walther Mitzka . De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1967; Reprint (“21st unchanged edition”) ibid 1975, ISBN 3-11-005709-3 , p. 705.
  7. ^ Max Höfler: German book of names of diseases. 1899, p. 640.
  8. a b J. Bleker / M. Stöffler-Meilicke: Epidemics, Plagues, Infections From the ineradicable evil 01/2002 on
  9. Infectiousness on
  10. Spectrum: Compact Lexicon of Biology: Epidemics.
  11. Loimology on Pschyrembel online
  12. ^ Karl Sudhoff , Georg Sticker : History and epidemic research. Töpelmann 1910.
  13. Marion Hulverscheidt, Anja Laukötter: Infection and Institution: On the History of Science of the Robert Koch Institute in National Socialism Wallstein Verlag 2013
  14. ^ Disease Research: Viruses Travel Like Dollar Bills Focus online January 26, 2006
  15. Pia Heineman: The Plague Island Welt am Sonntag online from September 13, 2015
  16. Epizootie Lexikon der Biologie on
  17. Panzootie Lexikon der Biologie on
  18. Information on the information system for epidemic reports (InfoSM) in Switzerland
  19. Contamination synonymous with contamination on Pschyrembel online
  20. Entry on infection in Flexikon , a wiki of the DocCheck company , accessed on April 6, 2020.
  21. ^ Epidemics of the 21st Century. In: Retrieved March 22, 2020 .
  22. Documentary series: The history of epidemics. In: Retrieved March 21, 2020 .
  23. Shadow of Death - The Story of Plagues. In: Retrieved March 21, 2020 .
  24. Influenza, plague and cholera - The history of the great epidemics. In: Retrieved March 21, 2020 .
  25. Influenza, plague and cholera - The history of the great epidemics. In: Retrieved March 21, 2020 .