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Belgium says White House reading of its COVID-19 deaths unfair

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium detailed how it tallies its coronavirus death toll on Wednesday, saying being singled out as having the world’s highest COVID-19 mortality rate was not a fair comparison.

A White House briefing on Saturday showed Belgium as having the highest deaths per 100,000 population, at 45.20 ahead of badly hit Spain and Italy and four times the rate of the United States.

“It’s not a fair comparison because our counting system is much more comprehensive,” Belgian coronavirus task-force spokesman and virologist Steven van Gucht told Reuters in an interview.

“We take into account not only the hospital cases but also cases that occur in the community for example in the nursing homes.”

For most countries, the COVID-19 death toll results from patients in hospital who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Belgium is one of few countries in Europe that also includes the deaths of non-hospitalised people suspected of having the disease.

It has so far reported 41,889 confirmed cases and 6,262 deaths, but 52% of those fatalities are in nursing homes. Of these, only 4.5% are confirmed to have had COVID-19, with the rest just suspected cases.

With an overall mortality rate of around 15% per COVID-19 case, that makes Belgium among the hardest hit countries in Europe, according to data collated by Reuters.

For a more accurate comparison with other countries, Van Gucht said the Belgian death rate should be divided by two.

He also suggested a better comparison would be between Belgium and the greater New York area than the whole of the United States. In time, other countries would also get their data straight to allow reliable comparisons.

Health Minister Maggie De Block said last week that national science body Sciensano was working on a system to enable more accurate comparisons to the countries around Belgium.

The government and economic and medical experts will meet on Friday to discuss an easing of lockdown measures from May 4.

Reporting by Marine Strauss @StraussMarine; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Nick Macfie