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Why are so many people dying in Portugal this winter?

Authorities re-emphasise appeals for people to ‘get vaccinated’

Why are so many people dying in Portugal this winter? It’s a question posed by onlines as authorities re-emphasise the numbers which “haven’t been seen since the pandemic”: hundreds of ‘excess deaths’ per day, albeit in the month traditionally known for excess deaths.

Answers seem to be a mixture of an especially virulent strain of ‘Gripe A’ (winter flu, by any other name); failings of the SNS public health service and the low-uptake by citizens of vaccines. 

“The next two weeks will be fundamental”, we are told. Anyone who should have been vaccinated (those with chronic ailments/ vulnerabilities/ over the age of 60) should do so pronto.

In fact, according to the DGS (general health directorate) excess deaths this winter are expected to continue, and they are affecting all age groups over the age of 45…

Rádio Renasença has been talking to DGS health chief Rita Sá Machado, as well as investigator José Miguel Diniz, who has been tracing the scale of the problem: over 1,000 ‘excess deaths’ since Christmas Eve. What that means, in real terms, is that between the last week of 2023 and the first week of 2024 more than 7,000 deaths were recorded… making January the “worst month for deaths in eight years, if one excludes the years of the pandemic”. (In other words, January was only one of the worst months in recent years…)

But epidemiologist Milton Severo exposed the ‘nitty gritty’, which is that Portugal is “among more than 20 countries with the highest classification in excess mortality, and the only one with ‘elevated excess mortality’”. What could be causing this? Milton Severo believes it is a “situation with various causes”, but that these causes will need “some time to evaluate”. He admits it is “worrying”.

Online media outlets refer to the “increase in younger-age mortality”, which the DGS’ health boss attributes to “an extreme and extensive period of cold” combined with the “activity of flu”.

Rita Sá Machado told RR: “It is not insignificant to look at the subtype of the flu virus that is circulating, which is the H1 subtype. We may have a greater number of infections in younger age groups and also some serious illness in younger ones. This is still a preliminary analysis, which is being carried out and will also be done towards the end of the flu season.” 

Ms Machado does not explain why the ages of the dead would not be known already.

Overall, blame is being laid at the feet of ‘Gripe A’, and the importance of getting vaccinated against it.

The spectre of Covid-19 is barely mentioned these days – but Ms Sá Machado’s exhortations for vaccination stressed that both vaccines are “important”.

“It is so important that people get vaccinated”, she said. “Just as they did during the times of the pandemic and before, now even more so”.

According to the ECDC (European Centre for Prevention and Control of Diseases) there has been a dip in ‘herd immunity’ against the flu due to the “generalised application of non-pharmacological measures during the Covid-19 pandemic” (meaning lockdowns/ enforced mask wearing/ social distancing – everything essentially that kept people away from each other, and unable to share simple viruses).

But if any of these explanations raise inconvenient questions, RR heard from former president of the College of General Medicine, and currently a lecturer at Porto University, Paulo Santos, who blamed the winter death drama on “the cold and the damp”.

Minimum relative humidity this year was markedly higher than last year. “Last year it was between 55% and 70% in most of the country. Today we have values of between 80% and 100%,” explains the expert. And that won’t be helping anyone with respiratory problems…

Vaccination “without adhesion”

Again, the less-than-stellar response to this winter’s vaccination campaign has been described as “vaccination without adhesion”, when in fact over 62% of the over-60s have taken up the offer of the flu vaccine, and over-70s and over-80s have responded very much as they have done every year, with around 75% coming forwards for their jabs. ND

Source material: Diario de Notícias/ Rádio Renascença/ ZAP