Pandemic health measures helped reduce Australian deaths in 2020, study finds

Pandemic health measures helped reduce Australian deaths in 2020, study finds

Public health measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic led to a drop in overall Australian deaths in 2020, including from the coronavirus, a new study from the University of Sydney has revealed.

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

The study, published in The International Journal of Epidemiology, used statistical modelling of population data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics to analyse the number, and type, of deaths.

The study found:

  • There were 4% fewer deaths from all causes during 2020 in Australia compared to 2015-19 projections, equating to 3,755 fewer people dying than expected
  • There was a reduction in deaths from respiratory diseases and dementia in older age groups, accounting for 3,152 and 709 fewer deaths respectively
  • There was reduced seasonality in ischaemic heart disease (IHD) deaths, with fewer than expected IHD deaths in winter
  • There were no changes in deaths from cerebrovascular causes or cancer
  • More people (383) died from diabetes than expected in 2020

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.

Further, the finding suggests that observed increases in non-covid deaths in other parts of the world could relate to health system overload and changes in health-seeking behaviour, as well as missed COVID-19 deaths. Meanwhile, the increased deaths from diabetes-related causes was also found in studies from Italy and Norway, which may point to some patients with diabetes avoiding healthcare.

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 lockdowns 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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