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Emerg Infect Dis. 2006 Jun;12(6):976-80.

2,500-year evolution of the term epidemic.

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  • 1Institut Pasteur de Nouvelle Calédonie, Nouméa, New Caledonia.


The term epidemic (from the Greek epi [on] plus demos [people]), first used by Homer, took its medical meaning when Hippocrates used it as the title of one of his famous treatises. At that time, epidemic was the name given to a collection of clinical syndromes, such as coughs or diarrheas, occurring and propagating in a given period at a given location. Over centuries, the form and meaning of the term have changed. Successive epidemics of plague in the Middle Ages contributed to the definition of an epidemic as the propagation of a single, well-defined disease. The meaning of the term continued to evolve in the 19th-century era of microbiology. Its most recent semantic evolution dates from the last quarter of the 20th century, and this evolution is likely to continue in the future.

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