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Air pollution linked to COVID-19 mortality in Italy, study finds

Tuesday, April 7th 2020, 6:53 pm - Researchers suggest that the dangerous air quality levels in northern Italy could be connected to the high mortality rates from COVID-19.

Italy has been one of the most severely impacted European countries by the COVID-19 pandemic and has the highest national death totals as of April 7. Health experts have offered various findings that explain why Italy has been particularly hit hard by the virus, with explanations including population density and the average age of the population. Findings from a recently published study could add to our understanding of Italy’s impact, as it states that there is a possible link between air pollution and the particularly high mortality rates.

Go here for our complete coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic

Several factors affect the course of COVID-19 that a patient experiences and there is currently no specific medical treatment or vaccine. Health researchers from Aarhus University and the University of Siena in Italy have found that the mortality rates in northern Italy range up to 12 per cent, while the rest of the country is only seeing a rate of approximately 4.5 per cent.

Italy Aerosol1

The study states that Lombardy and Emilia Romagna are two regions in northern Italy with some of the highest levels of air pollution in Europe. Air pollution is a well-known cause of inflammation in the respiratory system and people living in areas with high levels of pollution are more likely to develop chronic respiratory conditions.

The researchers say that the residents in Lombardy and Emilia Romagna likely had higher levels of inflammation in their airways compared to those in other regions of Italy, which partly lead to a poorer prognosis for the infected individuals.

GETTY italy smog Foggy aerial view on Bergamo town, Lombardy, Italy. Credit: Getty Images

Air pollution also disrupts and weakens the immune system, which the study notes could have also contributed to the high mortality rates. Since the rules promoting social distancing and working from home in Italy were implemented, a dramatic decline in air pollution was observed in northern Italy's Po Valley, the most industrialized part of the country. The researchers note the reduced pollution levels, but say that short-term improvements in the air quality might not be sufficient to lower the region’s risk to COVID-19.

Italy2

Since this virus has never been seen before, the researchers say that all new knowledge on the spread and impact of COVID-19 is valuable for scientists and health officials. The study notes that other critical factors should not be neglected when assessing the high COVID-19 mortality rate in northern Italy, which include: age, variation in health care systems across Italy’s regions, the capacity of intensive care units and policies that have been implemented by the government.

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