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Influenza, COVID-19 and the elderly

Posted By Angela W / June 10, 2020 / 0 Comments


Influenza, COVID-19 and the elderly


All the reasons why 60-plussers should be taking Covid-19 seriously, and doing everything possible to avoid contracting and transmitting the virus


Many thanks to Professor Anna-Lise Williamson and Professor Ed Rybicki,
Virologists from the University of Cape Town,
who have written this article for You’ve Earned It/YEI


Comparisons are continually being made between flu and COVID-19, usually with the implication that COVID-19 is not worse than flu. First of all, this implies that influenza is not a dangerous disease. In fact, this is not true at all: in South Africa it is estimated that 6 000 – 12 000 people die of flu in a typical year, with 40 000 hospitalisations due to severe disease despite access to vaccines and some immunity from previous infections.  https://www.cdc.gov/globalhealth/countries/southafrica/what/influenza.htm

The numbers are far higher in flu pandemic years: for example, while seasonal flu kills between 300 000 – 600 000 people in any given year worldwide, over 2 million people died in the 1957 Asian Flu pandemic – when the world’s population was less than half what it is now.

COVID-19 is a new disease, and so there is no vaccine for it and no immunity from previous infections: thus, the whole world is essentially susceptible. The death rate with seasonal flu is about 0.1% of infected people: however, with COVID-19 it appears to be about 2% of infected people in South Africa presently, meaning COVID-19 kills a far greater proportion of infected people than flu.

The elderly are also much more at risk of dying than the young: this diagram of deaths from COVID-19 by age in the Western Cape from 28th May shows that elderly people are much more likely to die than the younger people, despite the peak of disease incidence being highest in 31-40 year olds


Influenza, COVID-19 and the elderly


For example, while people under 50 worldwide have a case fatality rate (CFR) of less than 1%, people between 50-59 have a CFR of 0.5 – 1.3%; the 60-69 bracket a CFR of 1.8 – 3.6%; people of 70-79 a CFR of 4.5 – 12.8%, and people over 80 a CFR of 13 – 20% (https://ourworldindata.org/mortality-risk-covid#case-fatality-rate-of-covid-19-by-age). This means people over the age of 80 are about ten times more likely to die if they get COVID-19, compared to people under 50.

Another problem with COVID-19 is that people with underlying health conditions are much more liable to die than people with no underlying conditions. In a study from China cardiovascular disease was the worst complication, with people being twelve times more likely to die than those with no chronic disease. The rates for people with cancer, hypertension, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes ranged from 6 – 7 times higher. This mean that the danger from COVID-19 is even higher in elderly people with so-called comorbidities, than one might expect from age alone.


Influenza, COVID-19 and the elderly


While COVID-19 can kill people, it can also have a number of long-term consequences in people who recover (https://www.healthline.com/). There can be a neurological component, as illustrated by the fact that loss of taste and smell is a common early symptom of severe infection. The lungs can also be permanently damaged, and there is disturbing evidence of people as young as 30 experiencing severe strokes, even if their symptoms were mild. COVID-19 infection can also cause heart damage, even in people with no heart issues. In many people the recovery time is prolonged, with some people describing it as being like having chronic fatigue syndrome.

Although people are now allowed more freedom to work and move around, the elderly need to continue to be extra careful and continue to self-isolate. There is now significantly more risk of being infected with coronavirus than in level 5 lockdown: we will inevitably see an increase in community spread, which will be made a lot worse by the elderly attending gatherings such as church services and funerals.

The responsibility for social distancing has effectively been passed from the government to the general population, with the lifting of severe movement controls and some limits on gatherings.


Thus, it is up to all of us to keep ourselves safe.



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for South African over-60s


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