Figures on flu and pneumonia deaths well down in 2020

How many times have you heard that 2020 was a year like no other? If you are anything like me, you probably heard it more times than you sanitised your hands, and that is quite a lot.

Well, when it comes to the number of deaths in Australia, 2020 was a year much like any other, however, when you drill deeper down into the way people died, it was indeed very different.

According to the 2020 mortality statistics released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) on Wednesday, there were 141,116 doctor-certified deaths between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2020, or an average of 385.6 deaths per day.

This rate of deaths in Australia was in line with the baseline average for the year. However, there were substantial differences in the numbers of deaths from some leading causes when compared to historical averages.

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While we spent almost the entire year worried about one particular respiratory disease (COVID-19), deaths from both chronic and acute respiratory diseases were 16.2 per cent lower than historical averages.

COVID-19 deaths were not included in this category, however, and are not currently grouped with any other diseases, although they are still included in the total number of deaths.

The reduction in the number of deaths from the flu and pneumonia was even more stark than the decrease in people dying from respiratory diseases.

Influenza and pneumonia deaths were 36 per cent lower than the historical average, with the result heavily influenced by a particularly mild flu season.

Read more: The ‘officials’ letting down the vulnerable

Last year, Professor Robert Booy of the University of Sydney explained that social distancing measures put in place to combat COVID-19 were leading to a massive reduction in the number of flu cases in Australia.

“We’re not importing any flu and anything that stops close contact with others is going to make it harder for the influenza virus to transmit,” he said.

Deaths due to heart disease and stroke were below average for every month of 2020, and were 10.7 per cent and 7.8 per cent below average for the year respectively.

Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in Australia, with 13,405 deaths from this cause in 2020. The average number of deaths recorded for the same period between 2015 and 2019 was 15,034.

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That is the good news. But if deaths for 2020 were still around the average, that means they had to be higher in some areas as well.

Deaths due to cancer, dementia and diabetes were above historical averages by 4.0 per cent, 7.3 per cent and 9.1 per cent respectively.

Numbers of dementia deaths did not reach the usual peak during the winter months but higher death counts between January and April contributed to the increase overall for 2020.

Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, is the second leading cause of death in Australia and the number of deaths from dementia have increased steadily over the past 20 years.

Diabetes deaths were above average for most of the year and particularly high in April with 33.7 per cent more deaths than average. 

Deaths in 2020 did not follow the typical seasonal pattern with above average numbers of deaths in the warmer months and below average deaths in the colder months. 

Do these figures highlight how lucky Australia was when it came to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you concerned by the growing number of dementia-related deaths? What else do you find concerning about these figures?

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Ben Hocking
Ben Hocking
Ben Hocking is a skilled writer and editor with interests and expertise in politics, government, Centrelink, finance, health, retirement income, superannuation, Wordle and sports.
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