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Sweden’s ‘herd immunity’ approach to COVID-19 raises concerns, doctors say

Tuesday, April 21st 2020, 3:05 pm - Sweden’s approach to prevent the spread of COVID-19 domestically is comparatively less restrictive than the approaches taken by other nations.

While many countries around the world are practicing social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, Sweden is taking a different approach.

Sweden’s national government has urged citizens to take personal responsibility for following physical distancing guidelines, rather than strictly enforcing mandatory rules. Shops, restaurants, gyms, salons and primary and secondary schools have remained open for children under 16, even if a family member is ill, as reported by The Guardian.

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, has stated that the nation’s approach will allow some of the population to acquire an immunity to COVID-19 while preventing a situation that would overwhelm hospitals and other health services.

These regulations are comparatively less restrictive than the approaches taken by other nations and have raised criticisms from various world leaders and health institutions.

“They do have the right idea, we do need herd immunity because this helps to blunt the effect of an outbreak. The problem is with [COVID-19], is that you can get a lot of cases in a very short period of time. What that does is that it overwhelms the health care system, just like we’re seeing in Italy and New York City. So, I don’t think that’s the right approach. The U.K. tried it briefly and then they had to go to the approach that [Canada] is using, and unfortunately, they are paying for that,” Chakrabarti says.

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Herd immunity happens when a large portion of the population becomes immune to a disease or virus, which stops it from spreading and provides indirect protection to those that are not immune. This usually occurs when most of the population receives a vaccine, not when many become sick with the infection.

While herd immunity is not guaranteed to protect everyone that is not immune to the illness, there are some instances where herd immunity has been reached through vaccines. The University of Oxford’s Vaccine Knowledge Project has found that 19 out of every 20 people need to be vaccinated against measles to protect people who are not vaccinated. This organization points out that vulnerable people, such as newborn babies, greatly benefit from herd immunity, but it does not provide a high level of protection to an individual and is not a good alternative to receiving a vaccine.

No one knows exactly how long it will take for a COVID-19 vaccine to be developed and health experts estimate it could be anywhere between six months to several years. While some nations are taking different approaches to address the pandemic, international health institutions, such as World Health Organization (WHO), and the majority of national governments state that social distancing is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the number of fatalities related to the virus.

Similar to the guidelines that WHO has provided, the Government of Canada recommends that people should keep a distance of at least two arms lengths, which is approximately two metres, between yourself and others. WHO says that social distancing helps protect yourself from contracting COVID-19 because it greatly reduces your risk of coming into contact with small liquid droplets that a person releases from their nose and mouth when they sneeze or cough.

In addition to reducing the number of people infected with COVID-19, social distancing has prevented a surge of critically ill patients in hospitals, which could potentially overwhelm the healthcare system and force doctors to make difficult decisions.

Canada has not seen the predicted surge of COVID-19 cases in hospitals, but experts say relaxing mandatory social distancing measures anytime soon could put that in jeopardy. Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam has noted the number of cases in Canada is now doubling every 10 days or so, compared to every three days in late March, and cites the benefits of social distancing.

Health and government officials warn that there must be a consistent decline in the number of official cases and fatalities caused by COVID-19 for social distancing restrictions to ease. During a daily briefing in Ottawa on April 15, 2020, Tam said that emerging from COVID-19 would "be like making our way down the mountain in the darkness" and that "we mustn't rush or let go of our safety measures, or the fall will be hard and unforgiving," as reported by CBC News.

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