'22% of world population at risk of severe COVID-19'

Henrietta Strickland
June 16, 2020

The data analysis, which looked at more than 188 countries, showed that one in five individuals worldwide could be at increased risk of severe Covid-19, should they become infected.

According to the study published by The Lancet medical journal, an estimate of 1.7 billion people or 22% of the global population "have at least one underlying condition that puts them at increased risk of severe COVID-19 if infected".

Using guidelines from the World Health Organization and agencies in the United Kingdom and US, the authors grouped the underlying conditions that most affected the risk of severe COVID-19 into 11 categories: cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, chronic respiratory disease, chronic liver disease, diabetes, cancers with direct immunosuppression (suppression of the body's immune response due to the cancer), cancers without direct immunosuppression but with possible immunosuppression from treatment, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, chronic neurological disorders and sickle cell disorders.

"This might involve advising people with underlying conditions to adopt social distancing measures appropriate to their level of risk, or prioritising them for vaccination in the future", he said.

Less than 5% of people younger than 20 reported these underlying conditions; that number jumped to more than 66% of those over 70 years of age, the authors found. Among the working age population (15 to 64 years), 23% are estimated to have at least one underlying condition.

Those with underlying conditions were six times more likely to be hospitalized and 12 times more likely to die from COVID-19, compared to those who were otherwise healthy, the agency found.

Countries and regions with younger populations have fewer people with at least one underlying health condition, while those with older populations have more people with at least one condition.

For example, the proportion of the population with one or more health conditions ranges from 16 percent in Africa to 31 percent in Europe.

In the study, the scientists calculated the number of individuals at increased risk of severe disease - defined as those with at least one condition listed as "at increased risk of severe COVID-19" in the current guidelines.

According to the study, four percent of the world's population - or 349 million people - would require hospitalization if infected. Of those at risk of hospitalization, less than one per cent are under 20 and almost 20 per cent are 70 and older. In all age groups under 65, around twice the number of men as women would require hospitalisation.

Researchers say that although estimates give an indication of the number of people who should be prioritized for protective measures, not all of these individuals would go on to develop severe symptoms if infected.

In a commentary about the new research, a public health professor said an understanding of who is most at risk can provide an opportunity to "target mitigation strategies" and can help dispel the misconception that "everyone is at equal risk of severe illness".

"As the authors note, it is time to evolve from a one-size-fits-all approach to one that centres on those most at risk", wrote Nina Schwalbe with the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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