Coronavirus: Why have so many young people in Australia tested positive for COVID-19?

Construction workers near Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

The fight against the spread of coronavirus has partly been viewed as a battle to protect the elderly.

In many of the worst-affected countries, older people have made up the highest proportions of sufferers of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

In Italy, the country with the highest death toll, 36% of cases have been in people who are over 70, and 73% of sufferers have been over 50.

In China, 31% of cases have been among the over-60s, and those aged under 30 make up just 10% of cases.

A jogger runs along Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. The Australian government has introduced further restrictions on movement and gatherings in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The UK government deems anyone over 70 to be at higher risk from coronavirus, and advises older people to reduce social contact as much as possible.

In Australia, however, coronavirus data shows the illness is most common among people aged between 25 and 29, a category that accounts for 11.3% of all cases.

According to the country’s Department of Health, more young Australians in their late 20s have coronavirus than those aged 60 to 65, who make up 9.5% of cases.

In addition, 9.3% of cases are among people aged 20 to 25.

Only 2.7% of confirmed cases come from people aged 80 and above, although 47% of deaths have been in that bracket.

According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been 4,862 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia, with 20 deaths and 422 recoveries.

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The youngest person to die in Australia so far was a 68-year-old man from Queensland.

Disease experts believe positive tests for coronavirus are more prevalent in young Australians because they are more likely to travel, and people who have been abroad are a group who have been tested under the country’s policy.

Prof Lyn Gilbert, a senior researcher from the University of Sydney’s Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity, told The Guardian that testing had been concentrated on returned travellers and their contacts, making young people considerably more prevalent in the data.

She added: “There is a feeling that it doesn’t affect them, they are not going to get sick. And mostly they are not – they won’t get a severe illness. But they pass it on.”

Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert from the Australian National University in Canberra, said this was reflected by the higher number of cases in more affluent areas of Melbourne and Sydney.

Australia has made testing widespread and available to healthcare workers, police, care home residents and prisoners.

The country has also tested those with mild symptoms rather than only those who are seriously ill – another contributing factor to the larger numbers of positive cases in the young.

Older patients are more likely to become seriously ill, meaning they can be overrepresented in data if only the very sick are tested.

On Tuesday the country introduced strict new measures including bans on gatherings of more than two people and large fines for those breaking lockdown rules.

This week Australia reported a drop in the rate of new coronavirus infections, which have slowed to an average of 9% over the past three days compared with 25% to 30% a week earlier.

Earlier this month, World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned young people that they are “not invincible”.

He said: "This virus could put you in hospital for weeks or even kill you.

“Even if you don't get sick the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else."

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Australia’s COVID-19 death rate is below 1%, well under the 10% reported by some nations.

In a televised address, health minister Greg Hunt said: “That's an achievement to which all Australians have contributed.”

Professor Collignon said Australia’s early introduction of social distancing has proved vital.

"We acted much earlier than the likes of Italy and the United States," he said.

"We had much less community transmission and we still shut our borders and implemented social distancing policies such as shutting down bars and pubs, and did much more testing."

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