Outbreaks and pandemics

Learn how we define outbreaks and pandemics and how we plan and prepare to manage them.

How we define outbreaks and pandemics

We monitor the incidence of nationally notifiable diseases in Australia as part of our communicable disease surveillance function.

We describe outbreaks by the number of cases and geographical area affected as:

  • endemic – an outbreak confined to a particular geographic area
  • epidemic – a more widespread outbreak that may affect the entire nation
  • pandemic – an epidemic that is affecting the entire world, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

When there is a sudden increase in the number of reported cases of a disease, we liaise with the relevant state or territory government.

If a communicable disease outbreak becomes a national emergency, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer activates the National Incident Centre. We publish health-related information about the emergency on our website to keep the public informed.

The International Health Regulations (2005) requires us to notify the World Health Organization when a serious outbreak that might cross international borders happens.

Planning for outbreaks and pandemics

We plan ahead to make sure we are ready to manage a disease outbreak. Emergency response plans already exist for:

  • chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents, including:
    • plans to manage the deliberate release of abrin, ricin or smallpox
    • guidelines for responding to anthrax, chemical and radiological incidents
  • nationally significant incidents of communicable disease, including
    • COVID-19
    • flu
    • polio
  • other emergencies of national significance, including natural disasters and mass casualty incidents.

Emergency management plans

This collection contains the emergency management plans we follow when responding to both domestic and international health emergencies.

Preventing disease outbreaks

Our National Immunisation Program helps prevent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable communicable diseases.

Find out more about this program, including what vaccines are available and where to get vaccinated.

Committees and groups that provide advice

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) provides advice to the Minister for Health about vaccines.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) is the main decision maker for national health emergencies.

Disease surveillance

We collect data on potential disease outbreaks through the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS). State and territory health authorities update this data daily.

The Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA) reports this information to the AHPPC, who uses it to make decisions about national health emergencies.

Last updated: 
9 August 2022

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