WHO says omicron is life-threatening for unvaccinated elderly people with underlying medical conditions

A patient is hauled out of an ambulance in front of the emergency room of the Cotugno Infectious Diseases Hospital, which has been overwhelmed by the Omicron Covid-19 variant, Campania, Italy on January 6, 2022.

Salvatore Laporta | CONTROLAB | Light rocket | Getty Images

The World Health Organization said Tuesday that the Covid omicron variant could lead to life-threatening illnesses in the unvaccinated, the elderly, and those with underlying medical conditions.

Dr Mike Ryan, director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said unvaccinated people face a higher risk of omicronic infection causing them serious illness and possibly even killing them.

“Omicron continues to pose a serious threat to their lives and a serious threat to their health,” Ryan said of the unvaccinated during a live Q&A broadcast on Tuesday on WHO’s social media channels.

Ryan said vaccinated people, on the other hand, usually get mild illness if they have a breakthrough infection.

“People have to really take it seriously in terms of going out there and getting the vaccine,” Ryan said.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19, said older adults and people with underlying medical conditions face an increased risk of dying from omicron compared to other groups.

“We know that mortality increases with the omicron with age,” said Van Kerkhove. “We also have data from several countries that show that people with at least one underlying medical condition are at increased risk of hospitalization and death, even if you have omicron versus delta.”

Van Kerkhove said that a smaller proportion of people die during the omicron wave from Covid, and the overall risk of serious illness and hospitalization is lower compared to Delta. However, she cautioned that lower severity does not mean omicron only causes mild illness.

“It’s not just a mild illness,” Van Kerkhove said. “This is really important because people are still hospitalized for the omicron.”

Van Kerkhove warned that people should not become fatalistic and resign themselves to infection, warning that the long-term health effects of omicron contamination remain unknown. She said people should get vaccinated, wear a suitable mask, avoid crowds and, if possible, work from home.

Ryan said the health effects of viral infections often depend on a person’s baseline health, including whether the immune system is strong or not. For example, people with diabetes are not well equipped to fight the virus.

“We can definitely say that the omicron variant causes, on average, less severe illness in anyone – but that is on average,” Ryan said. “Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are in hospitals when we talk about the omicron variant, and this is a very serious illness for them.”

Van Kerkhove said the omicron has been found in every country with good genetic sequencing and is likely to be present in every country. She said the omicron is overtaking the delta around the world and becoming dominant.

WHO reported 15 million new infections and 43,000 deaths worldwide in the week ending January 3.

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