UK to investigate racial bias in medical devices after COVID toll
London The British government is investigating whether racial bias built into some medical devices has resulted in blacks and Asians getting sick and disproportionately sick and dying from the coronavirus.
Health Minister Sajid Javid said Sunday that the pandemic has highlighted health disparities based on race and gender. He said a third of Britain’s intensive care admissions at the height of the pandemic were black and minority ethnic groups, more than double their share of the population.
The British Statistics Office found that in the first year of the pandemic, up to March 2021, blacks and South Asians in the UK had higher death rates than their white compatriots, even after factors such as occupation and underlying health conditions were taken into account.
One problem, Javid said, has been research showing that pulse oximeters, which measure blood oxygen levels across the skin, work less effectively on darker skin. He described it as a “systematic” global issue.
“Now, I’m not saying this was intentional by anyone, I think it’s just a potential systemic issue, with medical devices and you might go even further with medical textbooks, for example,” Javid told Sky News.
Writing in the Sunday Times, he said, “The possibility that bias – even if unintended – could lead to poor health outcomes is wholly unacceptable.”
He said he hopes to work with his US counterpart, Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, and officials in other countries, to eliminate bias in the health system.
He said a UK review, which will also look at gender bias, will present its findings by the end of January.
Britain has recorded more than 143,000 deaths from the Corona virus, the highest rate in Europe after Russia.
Europe is currently the only part of the world where cases of the COVID-19 virus are increasing, and many countries are reimposing restrictions to combat the increase. Austria will go into a nationwide lockdown on Monday, and violent protests erupted in the Netherlands this weekend after the government said it would “restrict the access of unvaccinated people to some places.”
However, cases in the UK are generally flat and deaths and hospitalizations are slowly declining. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week he did not see the need to move to the government’s winter “Plan B”, where people will be required to wear masks indoors and advised to work from home.
Britain has recorded higher infection rates than its neighbors for several months, and some scientists say that puts the country in a better position now.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said the UK had been dealing with the highly contagious Delta type of virus for longer than its European neighbours, and “because we’ve had high infections in the past, we” probably have a bit more natural immunity in the population. Britain is also now rolling out booster vaccine doses for everyone aged 40 and over.
John Bell, a professor of medicine at Oxford University, said he did not think the UK would face another Christmas lockdown, as it did last year.
“My advice is, order that turkey, because everything will be fine,” he told Radio Times. But he added, “If you’re planning a ski vacation in Austria, things might not go so well.”
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