WHO estimates true COVID death toll is nearly 15 million

by Stephen Riddle

Forget the number of deaths worldwide from COVID-19 estimated by the various trackers of around six million. The true figures is much higher, at nearly 15 million, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The agency believes many countries have underestimated the number of deaths that can be directly or indirectly attributed to the coronavirus, in some cases by a massive margin.

In India, for instance, it reckons that there were 4.7 million deaths, far more than the official figure of just over half a million, although the Indian government has challenged the estimate and the methodology used in the study, according to the BBC.

The “excess mortality” associated with the pandemic in calendar years 2021 and 2021 – deaths from COVID-19 itself and lack of access to healthcare for other illnesses – was around 13% higher than would have been expected in the absence of COVID-19, according to the WHO report.

Factoring in statistical spread, the WHO thinks the actual figure lies in the range of 13.3 to 16.6 million. And the researchers reckon that the majority of the extra 9.5 million deaths in its calculations were caused by COVID-19 itself, rather than being indirect deaths.

“These sobering data not only point to the impact of the pandemic but also to the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO.

He added that the agency is “committed to working with all countries to strengthen their health information systems to generate better data for better decisions and better outcomes.”

There would also have been fewer deaths over the period due to some other causes – such as other infections like flu and accidents whilst driving or at work – due to lockdown restrictions.

Overall, the WHO estimates that the death toll was higher for men than women, with the deaths concentrated among older people and in just 10 countries in in South-East Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

20 countries, representing approximately 50% of the global population, accounted for over 80% of the estimated global excess mortality, according to the WHO.

While the methodology used by the WHO has been criticised, the estimates follow the same pattern as others that suggest there have been many millions more deaths from COVID-19 than reported.

A recent paper in The Lancet gave the number of excess deaths as 18 million. With a statistical range of around 17 to 20 million. The Economist also arrived at a figure of 18 million, with a spread of around 15 to 21 million.

“Although these estimates are different, the overall pattern from these two studies is similar,” commented Prof John Edmunds, an expert in statistical modelling of infectious diseases based at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in the UK.

“The true burden is likely to be much higher than the confirmed deaths figures and middle income countries have tended to fare the worst over the epidemic,” he added.

Countries with low levels of excess mortality include China – which imposed draconian lockdown measures on its population as part of a zero-COVID policy – as well as Australia which closed its borders to travellers early on in the pandemic.

“There can be no hiding from the fact this devastating death toll was not inevitable; or that there have been too many times in the past two years when world leaders have failed to act at the level needed to save lives.  Even now a third of the world’s population remains unvaccinated,” said Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome charitable foundation.

“More must be done to protect people from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and shield humanity against future risks,” he added.

“Climate change, shifting patterns of animal and human interaction, urbanisation and increasing travel and trade are creating more opportunities for new and dangerous infectious disease risks to emerge, amplify and then spread.”

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