- Almost half the fatalities were 80 years or older, all of them from Hubei province
- Chinese authorities say children have been infected but are not highly susceptible to the virus
Almost half of the 17 people killed by the Wuhan coronavirus so far were aged 80 or over and most of them had pre-existing health problems, according to China's health authorities. Children have been infected, but are not highly susceptible to the virus, they said.
Details of the fatalities released on Thursday showed the youngest person was 48 and the oldest 89.
All of those who died " 13 men and four women " were from the central province of Hubei, and treated in hospitals in its capital, Wuhan, where the outbreak began in December.
At least nine of those who died had pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, coronary artery disease and Parkinson's disease. Eight were in their eighties, two in their seventies, five in their sixties and one man was in his fifties. The youngest woman was 48 and had a pre-existing condition.
One 89-year-old man, surnamed Chen, had a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary heart disease and other conditions. He began experiencing symptoms on January 13, including difficulty breathing but not fever. Five days later, he was admitted to the Wuhan Union Hospital with severe breathing difficulties, and tested positive for pneumonia. He died the following evening.
The 48-year-old woman, surnamed Yin, had suffered from diabetes and had also had a stroke. She first had a fever, aches and pains on December 10 and her condition slowly deteriorated. She was treated at two hospitals in Wuhan before she died on Monday.
Officials in Beijing have been cautious about making definitive statements about the origins and characteristics of the disease, including its incubation period, saying more investigation was needed.
"There's still a need for further study of the virus over time," said Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, at a press briefing on Wednesday.
"As for the impact on younger people, according to current epidemiology and what we know right now, they really aren't susceptible," he said.
Patients as young as 15 have been infected with the pneumonia-like virus, according to Wuhan health officials. There are now more than 570 confirmed cases, including some reported in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand.
Chinese experts have said human-to-human transmission has played a role in the outbreak, and Wuhan is now in lockdown, with all public transport in and out of the city stopped on Thursday as authorities try to limit the spread of infection.
Authorities from the World Health Organisation are closely monitoring the situation, and have noted that the elderly are particularly at risk.
"Many of them (those who have died) have had underlying medical conditions" including diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, "and have been of older age", said Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the outbreak investigation task force at Institut Pasteur's Centre for Global Health.
"Based on our past experience with other respiratory pathogens, advanced age and underlying conditions are known risk factors for developing severe disease and death," she said.
The severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, outbreak in 2002-03 also caused far more deaths among elderly people than children. The fatality rate was less than 1 per cent in people under 24, 6 per cent in those aged 25 to 44, 15 per cent in the 45 to 64 age group, and more than 50 per cent in those aged 65 and over, according to a WHO study in May 2003. By June of that year, the outbreak, which also originated in China, had caused nearly 800 deaths worldwide.
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David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, agreed that the elderly were most at risk.
"Right now, it doesn't look like this is a particularly lethal virus. It's lethal in people who have co-morbidities, elderly people who have diabetes and chronic lung disease, and that's very similar to what the influenza virus does," said Heymann, who headed the global response to Sars when he was executive director of the WHO Communicable Diseases Cluster and is now in a WHO advisory group.
"We will be looking to see what the transmission patterns are, whether it transmits face-to-face as did Sars, or whether it's more like Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome) which transmits by close contact with patients," he said. "There's a whole series of things that need to be understood before you can make definite recommendations."
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