University of Sydney: Pandemic response led to a drop in Australian deaths in 2020

The public health measures taken in response to the pandemic resulted in fewer-than-expected Australian deaths overall in 2020, including death from COVID-19, but more deaths from diabetes.

Australian research has found there were fewer than expected deaths in 2020 compared to 2015-2019, even accounting for deaths from COVID experienced that year, suggesting Australian public health measures prevented a number of non-COVID-19 deaths.

The study used statistical modelling of population data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The paper was published today in leading epidemiology journal, the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Key findings
There were 4 percent fewer deaths from all causes during 2020 in Australia compared to 2015-19 projections. This equated to 3755 fewer people dying than was expected.
There was a reduction in deaths from respiratory diseases and dementia in older age groups (accounting for 3152 and 709 fewer deaths, respectively).
There was also reduced seasonality in ischaemic heart disease (IHD) deaths, with fewer than expected IHD deaths in the Winter of 2020.
There were no changes in deaths from cerebrovascular causes or cancer.
However, more people died from diabetes than expected in 2020 (383 more deaths).
Senior author Associate Professor Katy Bell from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health, School of Public Health said the full impact of the health benefits from respiratory infection control measures in preventing respiratory, dementia, and ischaemic heart disease deaths, may have been underappreciated pre-pandemic.

As well, the finding suggests that observed increases in non-covid deaths in other parts of the world may relate to health system overload and changes in health-seeking behaviour, as well as missed COVID-19 deaths.

The increased deaths from diabetes-related causes was also found in studies from Italy and Norway. This finding may reflect some patients with diabetes inappropriately avoiding health care.

Associate Professor Bell said further research was required to determine the reason for increased diabetes deaths in Australia, and also to assess for a possible increase in cancer deaths in the long-term from reduced attendance for healthcare (including screening) because of lock downs and fear of contracting the virus.

“We should think carefully about some of the insights to come out of the pandemic, regarding how we might retain some of the adopted behavioural changes,” she said.

“Learnings from the pandemic include the benefit of existing interventions such as vaccination programs, as well as some of the behavioural and policy changes into the long term, such as improved hygiene, staying away from work when symptomatic, flexible work-from home arrangements, and improved ventilation of workplaces and schools.”

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