Medical staff members tend to a Covid-19 patient at the Seinäjoki Central Hospital in Seinäjoki, Finland. LEHTIKUVA

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In November 2023, Finland experienced an unusually high number of deaths, 40% more than expected based on averages from 2016–2019, according to data released by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office. This spike in mortality has been attributed to the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid aging of the Finnish population.

Eurostat, which has been providing monthly data on mortality rates across EU countries since the onset of the pandemic, uses a metric called 'relative excess mortality'.

This is calculated by comparing the number of deaths in a given month to the average monthly death rate from 2016 to 2019. According to this measure, Finland's excess mortality in November was higher than in any other country monitored by Eurostat.

Seppo Koskinen, a research professor at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), noted that the rise in mortality was particularly pronounced among the elderly, those aged 70 and above. However, younger age groups did not see a similar increase.

One of the key factors affecting mortality in Finland is the rapid growth of the oldest age groups in the population compared to other EU countries. "About a third of the 40% excess mortality reported by Eurostat is due to the increased number of elderly people in Finland," Koskinen explained.

Even after accounting for the aging population, the number of deaths in November 2023 was significantly higher than expected, largely due to COVID-19. In November, there were approximately 500 more COVID-19 related deaths than in October.

Despite the spike in late 2023, the number of COVID-19 related deaths began to decrease towards the end of the year, returning to October levels by December. “Most COVID-19 deaths in November involved very elderly individuals with serious underlying health conditions. The median age of the deceased was 84 years, and 94% of the death certificates listed a chronic illness as a primary or contributing cause,” stated Sirkka Goebeler, a leading expert at THL.

Otto Helve, head of the Health Security Department at THL, added that the weakened immune response in the very elderly and those with serious chronic illnesses makes them more vulnerable, even if vaccinated or previously infected with COVID-19.

Interestingly, despite the impact of COVID-19 on mortality rates, the life expectancy for newborns in Finland has started to recover after a decline during the pandemic. The Statistics Finland reported a reduction of about half a year for men and almost a year for women from fall 2021 to the end of 2022. In 2023, however, life expectancy began to increase, recovering about half of the loss from the previous year.

Koskinen noted that the life expectancy for newborns in November 2023 was about one month shorter than in October, but preliminary data suggests that it might have returned to pre-November levels by December.

It's important to recognize that monthly variations in mortality are normal and can be influenced by a range of factors, including seasonal respiratory infections. Over the last eight years, the lowest monthly death toll in Finland was in June 2018, with 4,051 deaths, while the highest was in December 2022, with 6,195 deaths.

Koskinen emphasized the importance of considering various factors when interpreting changes in mortality rates, acknowledging that such fluctuations can raise concerns and questions among the public.

HT

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