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Excess Winter Mortality in England and Wales rise by 151%

Written by Kitty S Jones, submitted by Brod Ross and edited by Kate Thomas.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released a health and social care statistical bulletin last month about the excess mortality figures last winter, and a projection of figures for this year. In 2014-2015, there was a 151% rise in excess winter deaths in England and Wales, which represents the biggest yearly increase since records began.

In 2013 Labour MP for Exeter Ben Bradshaw called on the Government to ease the financial burden on the region's pensioners – thousands of whom live alone in isolated parts of Devon and Cornwall. In the West Briton he said, "Labour would break up the dominance of the 'Big 5' energy companies to drive down prices and abolish the regulator Ofgem, replacing it with one that stands up for the consumer." 

Excess Winter Deaths (EWD) continue to be an important public health issue in the UK, potentially amenable to effective interventions. This excess mortality is highest in both relative and absolute terms in elderly people and for certain disease groups. It also varies from area to area. EWD are also associated with cold weather. However, other countries in Europe, especially the colder Scandinavian countries, have relatively fewer EWD in winter compared to the UK.

Elderly people, individuals with low incomes (up to 9 million people in the UK live in fuel poverty), sick and disable people, those with mental health problems, babies and children under five, and pregnant women are considered vulnerable when the outside temperature drops below 6°C. Not all people living in fuel poverty is on benefits or are pension age. In fact, a Policy Exchange study  last winter found that half of households living in fuel poverty in the UK had someone in work.

The ineffective influenza vaccine was partly blamed for some of the increase over the 2014-15 period. The flu vaccine was quoted to have quite a low effectiveness, between 3% or 4% according to the Guardian. By the end of the period it was quoted at 34%, but that is still below what we would expect, which is at least 50% effectiveness. However, most people offered the ‘flu vaccine are also offered a pneumonia vaccine.

Pneumonia, a respiratory disease, is a complication of ‘flu that is the biggest cause of mortality. But pneumonia is a complication of other illnesses, too. People are much more susceptible to pneumonia when they are also malnourished and living in poverty. And the category Respiratory Disease includes asthma, bronchitis and a range of other illnesses. The flu vaccine’s efficacy is really something of a red herring. Respiratory disease is always a major cause of death in the UK and National Center for Biotechnology Information research shows consistently that it is more likely to be correlated with poverty than an ineffective flu vaccine.

Janet Morrison, the chief executive of the charity Independent Age described the figures as shocking. She said:

“even discounting the impact of the flu, the figures are still far higher than in previous years.
Councils, the government and energy companies need to help with things like insulating homes and assistance with energy bills for vulnerable customers. But there are also simple things we can all do like checking on our frail and elderly family and neighbours in cold weather. And making sure they are able to take up their flu vaccination, wrap up warm and eat well.”

There were more excess winter deaths in females than in males, as is the case over previous years. Male excess winter deaths increased from 7,210 to 18,400, and female deaths from 10,250 to 25,500 between 2013-14 and 2014-15.

In 2014/15 excess winter deaths increased significantly in all age groups compared with 2013/14.

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