What’s killing people around the world

Headlines dealing with ‘Health’ have inevitably been filled with COVID-19 stats. It’s understandable. We want to try to understand as much as possible about this killer beast that. But the pandemic isn’t the only thing killing people.

A new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) quantified what has killed pepeople in 2020. According to their finds, the top 10 killers are responsible for more than of half of the entire toll.

What’s killing people and how

Stepping off the COVID-19 info treadmill for a moment might not be such a bad idea, especially if it gives us the time to assess what the World Health Organization reports as the top causes of death and disability worldwide from 2000 to 2019.

According to WHO’s 2019 Global Health Estimates, published on Dec. 9, noncommunicable diseases made up seven of the world’s top ten causes of death. The top killer, however, was heart disease.

The world’s biggest killer was ischaemic heart disease, responsible for 16% of the world’s deaths. “Since 2000, the largest increase in deaths has been for this disease, rising by more than 2 million to 8.9 million deaths in 2019,” the report mentions. Ischemia is defined as a condition in which the blood flow and oxygen are restricted or reduced. The American Heart Association says that cardiac ischemia refers to decreased blood flow and oxygen to the heart muscle.

Overall, the top global causes of death were grouped into three categories: cardiovascular (ischaemic heart disease, stroke), respiratory (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections), and neonatal conditions like birth asphyxia and birth trauma, neonatal sepsis and infections, and preterm birth complications.

In terms of wealth

The WHO report further looked at diseases vis a vis income levels. In high-income countries, deaths due to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias were on the rise, surpassing stroke as the second leading cause.

In upper-middle-income countries, deaths from lung cancer rose: “stomach cancer featured highly in upper-middle-income countries compared to the other income groups, remaining the only group with this disease in the top 10 causes of death,” the WHO explains.

Communicable diseases, meanwhile, showed troubling numbers in low-income countries. Six of the top 10 causes of death in low-income countries were communicable diseases.

“People living in a low-income country are far more likely to die of a communicable disease than a noncommunicable disease,” said the WHO report. This is also perhaps why so many developed countries found it difficult to deal with the pandemic — they were not used to dealing with infectious diseases recently.

The pandemic has only shown even more just how important and difficult it is to maintain accurate datasets of this nature.

“COVID-19 has highlighted the importance for countries to invest in civil registration and vital statistics systems to allow daily counting of deaths, and direct prevention and treatment efforts. It has also revealed inherent fragmentation in data collection systems in most low-income countries, where policy-makers still do not know with confidence how many people die and of what causes,” said the WHO.

Pandemic forecast

Jason Beaubien of NPR News reflected on the time of the report’s data, through 2019 — before COVID-19 was known to be the global threat that it has become.

“So far this year,” said Beaubien, COVID has killed more than 1.5 million people. Forecasters predict that by the end of this year, the pandemic’s death toll could rise to 1.9 million.”

If so, COVID-19 would surely occupy a place on the list of the most deadly diseases.

The organization is stepping up to make sure detailed, accurate information is available on how many people die and of what cause, hoping to encourage rapid mortality surveillance.

Given the tools to support rapid mortality surveillance, the idea is that countries can collect data on the number of deaths by day, week, sex, age, and location. This can help health leaders deliver more timely efforts.

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