Advocates are urging the U.K. and U.S. governments to prioritize vaccinations for people with down syndrome

By Julie Mazziotta
December 17, 2020 04:42 PM
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People with down syndrome are at a ten-times-greater risk of dying from COVID-19 than the general population, research has found, and advocates say that those with the disorder should get priority for the vaccine.

Those with down syndrome tend to have several conditions that would put them at a higher risk of severe COVID-19, including heart defects, blood disorders and a tendency to develop respiratory infections like pneumonia.

To observe the way COVID-19 affected different populations, researchers at the University of Oxford tracked 8.26 million adults in the U.K. and monitored their health over a four-month period.

Of that large group, 4,053 had down syndrome. From Jan. 24 to June 30, 68 of the 4,053 patients with down syndrome died, with the majority of those deaths due to COVID-19. Of those 68, 27 people, or 39.7 percent of those with down syndrome, died from COVID-19, 17 from pneumonia and 24 from other causes. In comparison, 41,685 of the 8,252,105 patients without down syndrome died during that period, and a smaller percentage — 20.3 percent — of the deaths were from COVID-19.

After adjusting the data for several demographic and lifestyle factors, including age, sex, body mass index and underlying health conditions, the researchers determined that people with down syndrome were 10 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the general population, and just under 5 times more likely to be hospitalized for severe COVID-19 illness.

People with down syndrome often deal with immune conditions, and that, along with the extra chromosomes present in their gene sequences, are the cause of their higher risk of severe COVID-19, the researchers believe.

“This is a vulnerable population that may need protective policies put in place,” Julia Hippisley-Cox, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Oxford’s medical school and senior author on the U.K. study, told Science magazine.

In the study, published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, Hippisley-Cox and her fellow researchers noted that down syndrome is not listed as one of the conditions that put people at a higher risk of severe illness at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control or at the U.K.’s national health advisory. Soon after its publication, the U.K.’s chief medical officers added people with down syndrome to their list of “clinically extremely vulnerable” people.

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Advocacy groups in both countries are now urging federal health agencies to prioritize people with down syndrome for the COVID-19 vaccine. The U.S. and the U.K. just began vaccinations in health care workers and the elderly after approving the first COVID-19 vaccine, from Pfizer. In the U.S., the next wave of vaccinations is expected to go to essential workers, such as emergency responders and grocery store workers. The third wave would include those with preexisting conditions, which would ideally include people with down syndrome, advocates say.

Last week, members of the American Network of Community Options and Resources, a nonprofit that supports the needs of people with disabilities, sent an open letter to all 50 governors, urging them to consider people with disabilities for the first round of vaccines.

“If that diagnosis of intellectual or developmental disabilities puts you at higher risk of death, then you absolutely should have access to a vaccine that will save your life,” Shannon McCracken, vice president for government relations for the organization, told KOLD News.

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