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vaccine fairness

BY James Hingley

Healthcare

Long Covid: The Forgotten Side Effect?

With the latest uptick in cases, a fresh wave of long Covid cases is coming.

JULY 22  2021

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Freedom day is here. Restrictions on social distancing are no more. All venues are open for business. However, the UK is already in the grips of the third wave of Covid-19. Positive cases are continuing to rise and are already over 50,000 each day.

The latest modelling is showing that the UK will inevitably reach 100,000 cases each day. It is just a matter of time. Neil Ferguson, epidemiologist and professor at Imperial College London, warns that the UK could even reach 200,000 positive cases a day. What will determine whether social distancing measures are needed again is whether the number of hospitalisations remains comparatively low. Speaking to Andrew Marr, Professor Ferguson said that removal of restrictions would be a success under certain conditions:

‘keeping hospitalisations at around 1,000 a day and then declining, case numbers maybe peaking a little over 100,000 a day and then slowly declining.’

Professor Ferguson’s forecast is gloomy. The rise in cases shows no signs of slowing. Young people are the most likely to contract Covid-19 at this moment in time. Whilst they are unlikely to be severely affected by the virus, this is not the case for everyone. Without the protection provided by the vaccines, young people and the unvaccinated remain at risk.

Included in the risk is long Covid, the debilitating long term effect of the virus. With cases rapidly increasing, the number of people who will contract long Covid will also increase.

What is long Covid?

Covid-19 (SARS‑CoV‑2) is a virus that causes respiratory illness. Characterised by a high temperature, continuous cough and a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste, the virus has infected more than 190 million people globally. Most people recover from Covid-19 within 12 weeks.

For some, it lasts much longer. Around a quarter of people who develop Covid symptoms will experience these symptoms for a protracted period. Professor Ferguson estimates that around a million people have long Covid in the UK.

Long Covid has a range of symptoms. People report symptoms such as extreme fatigue, muscle weakness, memory lapses or “brain fog”, headaches, heart palpitations, depression and anxiety.

Despite the long list of symptoms, very little is known about the cause of long Covid. The chances of having long-term symptoms are not increased by the severity of the initial symptoms. People with mild symptoms are equally at risk of contracting long Covid. As a result, it is difficult to diagnose long Covid. Doctors may use blood tests, checking blood pressure and heart rate and chest X-rays to rule other possible causes.

 

Looking forward

The surge of the Delta variant could leave hundreds of thousands of people with long Covid. Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London, estimates that anywhere between 10 and 20% of Covid cases lead to long Covid. Accordingly, when the UK reaches 100,000 cases each day, between 10,000 and 20,000 of those will develop long Covid.

For those who are still dealing with long Covid, the prospect of more cases is sounding the alarm bells.

Joanna Herman is a Consultant in Infectious Diseases in London and teaches at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She is also a sufferer of long Covid. Writing for The i ahead of freedom day, Herman expressed her concerns that freedom day ignores the harm caused by long Covid.

Herman has been dealing with long Covid for 16 months. She describes how even the simplest daily chores, such as cooking and cleaning, are a challenge. Some days she is even unable to go to work. Herman is far from the only one facing these challenges. However, because the country has been so preoccupied with lockdowns, long Covid was forgotten. With lockdowns seemingly a thing of the past, Herman feels that it is time for long Covid to be given the attention it requires. With more people destined to get it, now is the time for people to pay attention to long Covid.

Help is coming

So far, it has been a challenge to treat long Covid. With so little known about it, doctors have been fighting an uphill battle. This is about to change. As part of a £20 million research drive led by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), 15 new studies into long Covid would receive funding. Studies will include testing whether aspirin or antihistamines can help recovery and using brain scans to examine brain fog.

The studies will recruit more than 4,500 volunteers to participate in the studies. One study will examine invisible lung damage caused by long Covid. Volunteers will undergo special scans using xenon gas to reveal damage that CT scans might miss.

All of these studies are a positive step towards combatting long Covid. With the vaccines helping to keep hospital numbers down, doctors can now turn some of their attention to long Covid. Given how little is know about long Covid, it could be a while until an effective treatment is found.

In the meantime, however, we must do our part in stymying the spread of the Delta variant. Joanna Herman’s story reveals the challenge of long Covid. Minimising the possibility of people getting it must therefore be a priority whilst researchers look for treatments.

 

 

About the Author: James Hingley

James Hingley is a contributing Features Writer with extensive expertise in International Relations, Politics and Culture.

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