Counting Coronavirus: How Are Different Countries Calculating Death Tolls, And Can You Trust Them?
Testing capacity, differing public health protocols and political meddling may have distorted coronavirus death counts around the world
The British government has faced criticism after new figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest the death toll from coronavirus is a quarter higher than previously reported.
But Britain is not alone in struggling to count coronavirus casualties accurately.
A mixture of pressures on testing capacity, differing counting protocols, and political meddling may have distorted death and infection rates around the world.
The specifics vary from country to country, but almost everywhere statisticians have to contend with a shortage of testing capacity, meaning only a small proportion of suspected coronavirus deaths can be firmly linked to the infection.
Italy has reported more than 11,000 deaths from coronavirus, more than any other country in the world.
But experts say the number may be inflated because of the way in which fatalities are recorded.
The Italian health system counts not only people who died directly from coronavirus but also who died with coronavirus, regardless of whether or not they were suffering from one or more serious diseases when they contracted it.
“The way in which we code deaths in our country is very generous in the sense that all the people who die in hospitals with the coronavirus are deemed to be dying of the coronavirus,” said Prof Walter Ricciardi, scientific adviser to the Italian government on the crisis.
“On re-evaluation by the National Institute of Health, only 12 per cent of death certificates have shown a direct causality from coronavirus, while 88 per cent of patients who have died have at least one pre-morbidity - many had two or three,” he said.
In the United States there is some confusion over what constitutes a coronavirus death, with counting protocol varying from state to state and several instances of miss-reporting.
The US Center for Disease Control compiles a national figure from statistics provided by individual states.
But while some of them count any deceased person who tested positive for coronavirus as a fatality caused by the virus, while others are more discriminating.
And the picture has been marred by several cases in which a death was attributed to coronavirus either prematurely or entirely mistakenly.
For example, in Louisiana a child aged under one was included in the official death toll. It led to widespread reports that the infant had died from coronavirus, when in fact the cause of death was still being investigated.
In California, reports initially suggested that a 17-year-old had died from coronavirus after being refused treatment at a hospital due to a lack of health insurance. It later emerged that he had died of septic shock.
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