Italy’s coronavirus outbreak may be so devastating because it has such and old population and the elderly come into frequent contact with the young.
A study by the University of Oxford has suggested that multiple generations living under the same roofs ‘accelerated’ the spread of the virus in rural Italy.
More than 31,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus in the crisis-hit country and at least 2,503 people have died – a death rate of almost one in 12.
The country has the world’s second oldest population after Japan – 22 per cent of people are over 65 – and people in that group are known to be more likely to die if infected.
But it could be the movements of young people which triggered the disaster.
It’s common for young adults in rural areas to live with their parents and grandparents but to commute into cities, such as Milan, to work and socialise.
They may have been picking up the virus while travelling and brought it home without realising they were ill, the Oxford researchers said.
Another study published this week suggested that 86 per cent of patients may have no idea they’re ill in the early stages of a country’s epidemic, raising the risk of this deadly spread going unnoticed.
And there are 11.9million people over the age of 65 in the UK who should be protected from catching the virus – Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged people not to visit sick or elderly relatives as the country has gone into lockdown.
Italy is in the grip of the worst coronavirus epidemic outside of China – 31,000 people have been diagnosed with the illness and 2,500 have died. Pictured, medical staff collect a patient in an isolation pod at a hospital in Rome
Italy’s devastating outbreak has been centred around Milan and the more rural areas surrounding it in the Lombardy and Veneto provinces.
The whole country is in lockdown and all citizens have been banned from travelling and urged from going outside – all tourists have been sent home.
In their study, published in the journal Demographic Science, the researchers wrote: ‘Even relatively few connections between communities can lead to a stark reduction in average network distances; the so-called small world phenomenon.
Paramedics are pictured outside a hospital in Rome yesterday, March 17
An intensive care ward is pictured inside one of Italy’s purpose-built coronavirus hospitals in Rome
The legendary canals of Venice now run clear as the entire of Italy is in lockdown and tourists have been ordered to leave by the Government. The city is one of the world’s most visited places and is usually heaving with tourists
‘Such community “connecting” individuals might be those young people around Milan that work in the city but reside in the most hard-hit villages in the surrounding with their parents and grandparents.
‘Thus, intergenerational co-residence may have accelerated the outbreak by creating intercommunity connections that increase the proximity of elderly to the initial cases, an area for further study.’
The danger of the lifestyle described in the study is that the city-goers interact with a lot of people, visit busy places and work or travel in more cramped conditions.
They risk picking up the virus and spreading it without realising, either because they get such a mild illness, or because it is transmitted before they get sick.
And through this route, the virus could make its way out of a city like Milan – where travellers will have brought it in – into smaller villages in the countryside.
Italy has the biggest population of elderly people in Europe, and the second oldest in the world, with almost a quarter of people (22 per cent) aged 65 or older.
And the median age – the middle of the age range – is 46.5 years old, according to the CIA – the fifth highest in the world.
For comparison, the UK’s median age is 40.6 (18 per cent aged over 65) and the US’s is 38.5 (17 per cent over 65).
The older someone is, the more deadly catching the coronavirus can be.
Age is known to be one of the biggest risk factors because the immune system and lungs are naturally weaker so the body is less able to fend off pneumonia, which the virus causes in severe cases.
Older people are also more likely to have the types of long-term illnesses which raise the risk of coronavirus becoming fatal, such as diabetes or heart disease.
Research has found that people aged 80 or over have a 14.8 per cent risk (one in seven) of dying if they develop COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.