More than 80% of COVID-19 global deaths during the first two years of the pandemic were among people aged 60 and older, according to a new study from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The trend held true across countries of all economic backgrounds, the report published Thursday found. But older populations in lower and middle income countries experienced the highest mortality rates and accounted for the majority of global COVID-19 death estimates.
More than 5.4 million COVID-19 deaths were reported worldwide in 2020 and 2021, but WHO estimates that there were 14.9 million excess deaths during that time. Excess deaths are the number of deaths above what would be expected. The estimate means that the toll of deaths related to COVID-19 is more than double the official number, a trend that previous research also found.
“The large disparity observed between reported deaths and estimated excess mortality, especially in upper-middle-, lower-middle-, and low-income countries, makes ascertaining true COVID-19-associated mortality challenging,” the authors wrote in the study.
The research also found that the median percentage of adults aged 60 and older who had their primary shots was 76% at the end of 2022, which is significantly short of WHO’s goal to have all at-risk populations fully vaccinated.
“These vaccines have been found to be safe and highly effective in reducing severe COVID-19, hospitalizations and mortality; however, despite available evidence on effectiveness reported COVID-19 vaccination coverage among older adults has not yet come close to the WHO goal of 100% in many parts of the world,” the study said.
The researchers wrote that limitations to vaccine access in many low and middle income countries impeded the ability to roll out the shots, so those “countries are taking longer to reach the recommended targets for primary series and booster dose coverage as recommended by WHO and national health authorities.”
Researchers suggested that more efforts are needed to increase vaccination rates among older adults. Even high-income countries like the U.S., where vaccination rates are significantly higher than lower income countries, have struggled with vaccine hesitancy and other shot uptake issues.
“As the fourth year of the pandemic begins, vaccine booster doses have been shown to restore or enhance protection against infection, symptomatic disease and severe disease, beyond that originally afforded by the primary series,” the authors wrote in the report. “This is particularly important because most countries have ended most mandated public health and behavioral measures to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2.”
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