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UK, Italy, Spain had high 'excess deaths' in first pandemic wave, study finds

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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain, Italy and Spain had the highest rates of so-called “excess deaths” from all causes, including COVID-19, among 21 developed countries during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, an international study has found.

Some 206,000 more people died between mid-February and the end of May in the 21 countries in total than would have been expected to die had the pandemic not taken place - an 18% increase in deaths, scientists who conducted the research said.

England and Wales accounted for 28% of all the excess deaths, Italy for 24%, and Spain 22%.

More than a million people globally have died from COVID-19, but this study, led by scientists at Imperial College London and published on Wednesday in the Nature Medicine journal, also analysed the increase in deaths from other health conditions due to disrupted healthcare services or economic and social factors.

The researchers said analysing excess deaths from all causes combined - which they did using weekly death data from the 21 countries - gives a more comprehensive picture of the overall impact of a pandemic.

“The pandemic has affected people’s lives and health in so many ways,” said Vasilis Kontis, who co-led the work. “For instance, some people may have had an operation or treatment delayed, or might have lost the support they need with their day to day medical needs.

“Taking these factors into account, looking at deaths from COVID-19 infection alone is too limited; looking at deaths from all causes allows us to better understand how well countries handled the pandemic.”

The 21 countries in the analysis were Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, England and Wales, Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

The combined death toll of 206,000 is similar to the total annual number of deaths from lung cancer in these countries, the researchers said. It is more than twice their annual combined death toll from diabetes or breast cancer.

Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Gareth Jones