A World Health Organisation leader has warned that it may be 2022 before the world is “done” with the COVID-19 pandemic, declaring that about one in 10 persons who had had the virus remains unwell after 12 weeks.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Regional Director of the World Health Organisation in Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, added that “No-one can predict the course of a pandemic.”
Kluge noted that while the majority of the people eagerly await a return to a new normal “where we are no longer restricted by measures limiting our freedom and the transmission of a deadly virus,” a significant proportion of those who have survived COVID-19 are asking when and whether their health will be fully restored.
The WHO Europe leader noted that “These are the many thousands who are experiencing post-COVID conditions, also referred to as ‘long COVID’ or ‘Post-COVID syndrome.’”
He stated that, in some patients, the “disability” following COVID-19 infection lingers on for months — with severe social, economic, health, and occupational consequences.
“The burden is real and it is significant: about one in 10 COVID-19 sufferers remains unwell after 12 weeks, and many for much longer,” Kluge, a public health physician, said.
He stated that, as with any new disease, so much was and remains unknown. As the pandemic has evolved, professionals and patients alike have mapped a path in the dark, through their experiences.
The physicians said that patients who have had suspected or confirmed COVID-19, who have persistent — new or changing symptoms — should have access to follow-up care.
“This is where primary healthcare has a particularly strong role to play,” he enthused.
Speaking in the same vein, a Professor of Europe Public Health, Martin McKee, stated that, “From early on, we have been hearing from people who have had COVID but, instead of making the expected full recovery, they have continued to suffer, sometimes for months.”
Continuing, he said, “Although many viral infections are self-limiting, making people feel unwell for only a few days before clearing up, others cause long term problems. Early on, we realised that this new coronavirus was not just causing pneumonia.
“In some patients it was attacking many different body systems, such as the heart and blood vessels, the brain, and the kidneys.”
He regretted that initial efforts concentrated on saving the lives of the tens of thousands of people who were most severely ill, saying that it took some time “before we turned our attention to those who were suffering persisting problems.”
Continuing, McKee said, “We know that about a quarter of people who have had the virus experience symptoms that continue for at least a month. About one in 10 is still unwell after 12 weeks. And with the passage of time we are realising that many are suffering for much longer.
“This is a condition that can be extremely debilitating. Those suffering from it describe a varying combination of overlapping symptoms. These include chest and muscle pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, and what patients describe as brain fog.
“We are beginning to understand why people get these symptoms. They include persistence of the virus in some parts of the body that are sheltered from the immune system.
“Such as the brain, direct damage to organs, such as the heart and lungs & also the pancreas, causing some new cases of diabetes & blood clotting, which can cause heart attacks & strokes. However there is a huge variety in both the pattern of symptoms & their severity.
“One very important thing to note is that the likelihood of getting Long COVID does not seem to be associated with the severity of the initial infection. Some people with mild symptoms at the onset still get it.
“However, some people seem to be at greater risk, including women, although we also know that they are less likely to die from COVID-19 and health workers.”
He recommended multidisciplinary, multispecialty approaches to assessment and management.
“We need to work with patients and their families to develop new care pathways, including rehabilitation and online support tools,” McKee said.
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