New research has found that one in five people around the world could have an underlying health condition that puts them at a higher risk of severe Covid-19.
Carried out by researchers in the UK, China and the US, the new study analysed the number of people with an underlying condition by age group, sex and country for 188 countries, using estimates based on data from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors Study (GBD) 2017, UN population estimates for 2020, and the list of underlying health conditions relevant to Covid-19 which is set out in the current guidelines.
The researchers also estimated the proportion of all people — with and without an underlying condition — who were at high risk of hospitalisation if infected with Covid-19.
The findings showed that an estimated 1.7 billion people, which is 22% of the world population, have at least one underlying health condition that could increase their risk of severe Covid-19 if infected.
Diabetes. Picture: iStock
When looking at the estimates by age, they also found that globally, less than 5% of people aged under 20 years have at least one condition, but more than 66% of those aged 70 and above, have an underlying condition that could increase their risk of severe Covid-19.
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The likelihood of having one or more of the conditions listed on the current guidelines is similar between the men and women, but the authors think males are twice as likely as females to require hospitalisation if infected – an estimate which is backed up by recent studies which have found that men have a greater risk of severe Covid-19.
However, the findings also showed that not everyone with an underlying condition will go on to develop a severe case of Covid-19. The researchers estimated that 4% of the world's population (349 million of 7.8 billion people) would need hospitalisation if infected, suggesting that the increased risk of severe Covid-19 could be quite modest for many of those living with underlying conditions.
Hospital. Picture: iStock
"As countries move out of lockdown, governments are looking for ways to protect the most vulnerable from a virus that is still circulating. We hope our estimates will provide useful starting points for designing measures to protect those at increased risk of severe disease," says Associate Professor Andrew Clark from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), UK.
"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."
Current guidelines published by the WHO and by public health agencies in the UK and USA include cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, and chronic respiratory disease as risk factors for severe Covid-19, although the researchers point out that there could be other possible risk factors for Covid-19 which are not yet included in all guidelines, such as ethnicity and socioeconomic deprivation, and which were not included in this study.
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