Covid was our No 3 killer in 2022

4 minute read

Lung cancer also made it to the list of the top five causes of death in Australia, a new AIHW health report card finds.

Covid was the third-leading cause of death in 2022, the first time in more than half a century that an infectious disease made it to Australia’s top five causes of death.

The latest biennial report card from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, “Australia’s Health 2024”, found that covid was responsible for almost half the increase in deaths in 2022 – an increase that caused Australian life expectancy to fall slightly for the first time since the mid-1990s.

Lung cancer was the fifth largest cause of death behind coronary heart disease (first), dementia, covid and cerebrovascular disease.

AIHW deputy CEO Matthew James said the report also showed a decline in life expectancy, for the first time since the mid-1990s. According to the report, a make born in 2020-22 can expect to live to 81.2 years, while a female born in this period can expect to live to 85.3 years.

This was a decline of 0.1 years from 2019-2021. This was likely due to the increase in deaths in 2022 (190,939 in 2022 – 19,470 more than 2021), according to the report.

“Even though life expectancy in Australia decreased in 2020–2022, it was still higher than it was in 2017–2019, prior to the pandemic, by 0.3 years for males and females,” said Mr James. 

“Covid-19 became the third leading cause of death in Australia in 2022, marking the first time in over 50 years that an infectious disease has been in the top five causes of death.”

The report had good and bad news when it came to smoking tobacco and using vapes in Australia in 2022-23.

Tobacco use – which causes more deaths than any other behavioural risk factor that negatively impacts health – continues to drop, with 8.3% of people aged 14 years and over reported to have smoked daily in 2022–‍223, compared with 12.2% in 2016.

When it came to vaping, the numbers were concerning.

In 2022–23, for people aged 14 years and over, 3.5% were using e-cigarettes daily, up from 0.5% in 2016. People aged 18–24 years ere the age group most likely to use e-cigarettes daily (9.3%) in 2022–23. For the same year and age group, 5.9% smoke tobacco daily.

“In 2022–2023, females aged 18–24 were more likely to use e-cigarettes daily compared with males – 10.3% of females and 8.5% of males,” said Mr James.

When it came to chronic respiratory conditions, the AIHW report found about 8.5 million Australians (34% of the population) were estimated to have chronic respiratory conditions, including 2.8 million (11%) living with asthma, and 638,000 (2.5%) living with COPD.

In 2022, the prevalence of asthma was similar for boys and girls aged up to 14 years, but higher for females than males over 15. Asthma did not vary substantially by remoteness area or level of socioeconomic disadvantage. COPD increased with increasing age and was similar for males and females; highest among people living in outer regional and remote areas and lowest for people living in major cities (3.9% and 2.2%, respectively).

In 2023, the respiratory conditions disease group accounted for 7.2% of total disease burden (also known as disability adjusted life years or DALYs), 8.5% of non-fatal burden (also known as years lived with disability or YLDs) and 5.8% of fatal burden (also known as years of life lost, or YLLs).

Lung Foundation Australia’s policy, advocacy and prevention general manager Paige Preston said lung health needed to be more of a priority for government.

She also called for a national refocus on bringing covid vaccination rates up and increased community awareness of the threat the virus and long covid continue to pose in Australia.

“The recent budget commitments to ensuring Australians have access to free covid boosters is highly commended but more needs to be done to reinvigorate the number of Aussies getting their jab,” she said.

“The refresh of the national immunisation strategy is currently under way and this presents an important opportunity for the government to establish clear vaccination targets for adults which is like what we have for children and adolescents.

“Without a clear goal and appropriate strategies and investment, this preventive health measure is lost. With both covid and lung cancer making the top five killers of Australians, our nation’s lung health has never been more important or under threat.

“The data underscores that the vaping reforms cannot come soon enough, as without strong action such as that which was just passed in parliament, vaping and its related addictions and disease may well end up being a future major cause of death and disease for the next generation.”

Australia’s Health 2024, AIHW

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