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Covid-19 caused nine times more deaths in those with learning difficulties, study finds

By Jack Guy, CNN

People with learning difficulties died from Covid-19 at a rate nine times higher than the general population during the first wave of the pandemic in the UK, worsening existing inequalities, according to a new study.

In fact people with nine different mental health conditions and intellectual disabilities experienced higher mortality from Covid-19 during the period, exacerbating longstanding inequalities with the general population, reveals the study, which was published in the journal The Lancet Regional Health — Europe on Thursday.

Researchers analyzed more than 160,000 deaths in the UK from March-June 2020 and found that deaths from Covid-19 among people with eating disorders were nearly five times higher than the general population, and four times higher among those with personality disorders and those with dementia. Deaths were three times higher for those with schizophrenia, according to the study.

“It was a substantial increase,” lead study author Jayati Das-Munshi, from the Social and Psychiatric Epidemiology department at King’s College London, told CNN.

“We weren’t expecting this mortality gap to improve, definitely not, but I think the extent to which it did get worse was quite shocking actually.”

Researchers analyzed anonymized data from clinical records of patients from south London. They assessed mortality ratios across nine mental health conditions and intellectual disabilities, as well as by ethnicity.

All of the ethnic groups represented in the sample experienced excess risk of mortality during the period, said Das-Munshi.

“All-cause mortality in people with dementia and learning disabilities were more than double in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the equivalent quarter of 2019,” reads the study.

“An elevated risk of all-cause mortality was also evident” among those with substance use disorders, schizophrenia, personality disorders and other mental health conditions, it continues.

Das-Munshi said this is a problem healthcare professionals have been aware of for decades.

“There is a longstanding concern that people with mental health conditions don’t get the same quality of care for their health that people with physical health conditions get, but of course this was then further exacerbated by the pandemic,” she told CNN.

From July-September 2020 mortality rates fell as Covid-19 cases decreased and the UK eased its lockdown. However the rates were still double that of the general population, a similar situation to before the pandemic hit.

Some two-thirds of deaths among people with mental health conditions are caused by preventable physical conditions, such as diabetes that could be better managed, said Das-Munshi.

Some of these underlying conditions are also linked to worse outcomes from Covid-19 infection, she added.

“It comes back to this issue that we really do need to be thinking about enhancing access to preventative health interventions,” said Das-Munshi.

“That could be anything from cancer screening to managing cardiovascular disease, offering smoking cessation, offering vaccination, encouraging people to take up offers of vaccination, that sort of thing.”

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