The corona figures of different countries are increasingly being juxtaposed. According to a table that has been circulating on social media and WhatsApp since last weekend, we may soon - like in Italy - face hundreds of deaths every day. However, these figures cannot be compared with each other, say experts in conversation with NU.nl.

In the table that does the rounds, the Netherlands and Italy are fairly similar in terms of death toll. Where Italy had 29 deaths on February 29, the counter in the Netherlands stood at 24.

Four days later, Italy was at 107 deaths and the Netherlands at 106 - a minimal difference. According to reports, the Netherlands would 'lag' Italy for two weeks.

At first glance, it appears to be a similar pattern. However, the comparison with Italy is 'completely flawed', says Harald Wychgel of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). "Each country has its own way of testing, so that the figures of no country can be compared."

The table circulating on social media. (Source: worldometers.info)

More is being tested in other countries

Wychgel explains that not everyone who may be infected is tested in the Netherlands. "We mainly test patients who are so ill that they are hospitalized. In other countries they test more, which means that the number of infections is much higher."

A clear example is Germany. According to the Robert Koch-Institut, the 'German RIVM', 160,000 people are tested in the country every week. That's more people than other countries have surveyed in recent months.

People with mild symptoms are therefore more likely to be taken away in Germany. This means that there are fewer infected persons who do not know that they are infected with the virus.

Epidemics are growing exponentially

In the case of the comparison between Italy and the Netherlands, it also appears that there is no logical reason to compare the figures from March 16 in the Netherlands and February 29 in Italy, the AD discovered. For example, it is 'more favorable' for the Netherlands if you put the numbers next to each other from the first death, or if you start the comparison from the hundred infections. It is not clear why this scenario was chosen in the comparison circulating on social media.

But how can this comparable growth be explained? According to Hans Heesterbeek, professor of theoretical epidemiology at Utrecht University, this is not a strange phenomenon. "The number of infections often develops exponentially in epidemics," says Heesterbeek. "It is a doubling time that we are currently seeing in all kinds of countries."

Because relatively many people are infectious without knowing it - and in the early days almost everyone who encounters an infected person is still susceptible - each infected person can infect about 2.5 new people. "The measures are stricter in some countries, but as long as there is still enough opportunity to make those 2.5 new cases, we have more or less the same exponential growth," said Heesterbeek.

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Italians are older on average

In addition to the different test methods, there are also other reasons why Italy and the Netherlands cannot be compared. For example, Italians are on average older than the Dutch, while the elderly in particular are more vulnerable to the corona virus.

Frits Rosendaal, head of clinical epidemiology at the Leiden University Medical Center, sees even more differences between countries. "In Italy, the coronavirus has been active for much longer and has been noticed later, making it easier to spread," said Rosendaal. "In relative terms, the Netherlands has taken measures more quickly."

Cultural differences also play a major role, according to Rosendaal. "In Italy, IC capacity is handled very differently. There they include people whom we would not include because they are too old. The elderly have a very different position in Italian culture."

Both Rosendaal and Heesterbeek hope to observe a decrease in the number of new infections in the Netherlands this week. "We will probably see the effects of the government's first measures at the end of this week," said Heesterbeek.

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The coronavirus in short

  • The coronavirus mainly spreads through sneezing and cough drops. The virus can be transmitted directly from person to person or (for a limited time) through surfaces such as door handles.
  • You can considerably reduce the chance of spreading by keeping at least 1.5 meters away from other people.
  • An infected person infects two to three others on average. Precautions are necessary to contain this.
  • The vast majority of patients have mild (flu-like) complaints.
  • Almost all deaths involve the elderly or other vulnerable persons, such as heart, lung or diabetes patients. If everyone complies with the measures, this reduces their risks.
  • Read here what precautions you should take.