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Winter deaths on the rise

The problem with excess winter deaths has been labelled a national scandal and campaigners will be disheartened to learn that it's a problem that may be getting worse, rather than better.

According to recent research from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), an extra 4,400 people died in the West Midlands and Staffordshire during winter compared to autumn - that is double the figures from the previous year. In 2013-14, the same region recorded 2,100 excess winter deaths. That is the third highest in the country behind the north west and south east.

The ONS has attributed the spike partly to problems with last year's flu vaccine. Inefficient homes, which lack suitable thermal wall insulation, are also believed to be a factor.

Commenting on the numbers, councillor Elias Mattu, social care chief on Wolverhampton council, described the increase as "very alarming".

The figure represented a 15-year high and the biggest yearly increase since records began.

What are 'excess winter deaths'?

To determine excess winter mortality, the ONS compares the number of deaths during December to March period to the number in the previous months. The groups considered most vulnerable when the outside temperature drops below six degrees Celsius include elderly people, householders on low incomes living in fuel poverty, those with mental health problems, babies, children under five and pregnant women.

Most of the excess winter deaths occur among people aged 75 and over. In more than a third of cases, respiratory disease is cited as the underlying cause. Circulatory conditions caused nearly a quarter of all excess winter deaths, while dementia and Alzheimer's disease were responsible for more winter fatalities than ever before.

"Shocking" figures

Commenting on the research, Claudia Wells from the ONS noted that the winter wasn't particularly cold, so the increase in winter deaths was probably primarily due to the ineffectiveness of the flu vaccine.

Janet Morrison, chief executive of charity Independent Age called the figures "shocking", adding that the deaths can't all be attributed to the flu vaccination.

"Even discounting the impact of the flu, the figures are still far higher than in previous years," she said.

She believes that people living in fuel poverty, and other vulnerable households need more assistance from councils, the government and energy companies.

In November, members of the West Midlands Pensioners Convention held a vigil in Birmingham to highlight the choice many elderly people have to make during the winter - between 'eating or heating'.

"It is very sad in the 21st century that we cannot look after our elderly properly. I think a lot of the problem is down to lack of funding in social care," councillor Mattu said.

He added that 'bed blocking' is a big factor to consider, as elderly patients pick up more bugs due to longer-than-necessary stays in hospital.

Research commissioned by Age Concern and Help the Aged in Scotland showed that in March 2009, almost one-third of people aged 55 or over had turned down their heating in the past six months due to concerns about the cost.