News in brief: COVID deaths greatly exceed flu and pneumonia rates; Hospitals must act on staff psychological wellbeing; Air pollution killed 6.67 million in 2019

COVID deaths greatly exceed flu and pneumonia rates

Deaths from COVID-19 have fallen since the start of the pandemic but remain four times higher than those due to flu and pneumonia, a UK study has found

According to death certificate data, COVID-19 was the underlying cause of 148,606 deaths in England and Wales between the weeks ending 13 March 2020 and 1 April 2022, compared with 35,007 deaths due to flu and pneumonia.

Also, annual deaths due to COVID, 73,766 deaths in 2020 and 67,258 deaths in 2021, “have been higher than those due to flu and pneumonia in any year since 1929”, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) noted.

In contrast, there were 170,600 death certificates on which COVID-19 was mentioned as cause or contributory factor, compared to many more – 219,207 – involving flu and pneumonia.

However, COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in England and Wales in 2020 and provisionally in 2021, ahead of Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, whereas flu and pneumonia were the seventh leading cause in both years.

Professor Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology, University of Nottingham cautioned that the data “includes consequences of infections in a totally naive population as well as data collected after immunity started to build, mainly through vaccination but also from natural infection”, and “doesn’t tell us about how COVID and flu will compare in future”.

“Future toll will depend on the transmissibility and disease potential of the two viruses set against the protection offered by vaccines and treatments,” he said.

“The only thing likely to massively impact on either is the emergence of a very different variant, and this is always going to be difficult to predict – for both influenza and SARS2”.

Hospitals must act on staff psychological wellbeing

Hospitals and other employers must take “proactive and meaningful steps” to care for the mental health and wellbeing of workers, a leading medical indemnity provider says.

The warning from Avant Mutual follows a decision last month by the High Court, which found in favour of a public prosecutor who sued her former employer for failing to protect her from workplace trauma.

She was ultimately awarded significant damages.

“The decision is a sad reminder to employers that they cannot adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach where the work of their employees inherently involves psychosocial hazards,” said Avant senior solicitor Frances Thomas.

She suggested employers conduct health and safety risk assessments to identify challenging situations, including violent, angry or distressed patients and extremely high workloads.

It was also likely that many staff had seen their mental health impacted through COVID-19, adding to the need for workplace health and safety systems to be agile and proactive, Ms Thomas added.

“We recommend that all practices have systems in place to manage psychosocial hazards,” she said.

AMA vice president Dr Chris Moy said more protections were needed, calling on all states and territories to enact legislation making hospital boards directly and explicitly responsible for the psychosocial wellbeing of their staff.

Laws that did so were currently only in place in South Australia, he said.

Air pollution killed 6.67 million in 2019

Air pollutants were responsible for 6.67 million deaths globally in 2019, and accounted for nearly 75% of the total pollution death toll that year, new figures show.

According to the report, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, there has been little progress in reducing premature deaths from pollution in recent years, with 2019’s figure of 9 million – equivalent to one in six deaths worldwide – the same as that in 2015.

“Despite its enormous health, social and economic impacts, pollution prevention is largely overlooked in the international development agenda,” said lead author Mr Richard Fuller from the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution.

“Attention and funding has only minimally increased since 2015, despite well-documented increases in public concern about pollution and its health effects.”

The research showed a decline in deaths from traditional pollution (household air pollution from solid fuels and unsafe water), but there was a sharp rise in those from ambient air pollution, which hit 4.5 million compared to 4.2 million deaths in 2015 and 2.9 million in 2000.

Establishing an independent science/policy panel on pollution, increased funding for pollution control and improved pollution monitoring are among recommendations made by the authors to help drive progress in reducing pollution and its impact on health and the environment.

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