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Infectious Diseases Q3 2022

Millions of people hit with long Covid may have to live with it for years to come

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Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge

Regional Director for Europe, WHO

Dr Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat

Europe’s Director of Country Health Policies and Systems, WHO

Dr Christopher Murray

Director, IHME, one of WHO’s 800 Collaborating Centres

Countries are urged to take post Covid-19 condition seriously by urgently investing in research, recovery and rehabilitation.

New modelling conducted for WHO/Europe by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine in the United States shows that in the first two years of the pandemic, at least 17 million individuals across the 53 Member States of the WHO European Region may have experienced post Covid-19 condition, also known as long Covid.

Prevalence of long Covid

The modelling indicates a 307% increase in new long Covid cases identified between 2020 and 2021.

“IHME’s research shows that nearly 145 million people around the world in the first two years of the pandemic suffered from any of the three symptom clusters of long Covid: fatigue with bodily pain and mood swings, cognitive problems and shortness of breath. Fast-forward to today and millions of people continue to suffer because of Covid-19’s lingering impact on their health and livelihoods,” says Dr Christopher Murray, Director of IHME.

Long Covid can also, directly and indirectly, affect mental health.

Debilitating long-term symptoms

While most people who develop Covid-19 fully recover, it is estimated that 10–20% develop a variety of mid and long-term effects like fatigue, breathlessness and cognitive dysfunction. Long Covid can also, directly and indirectly, affect mental health.

To help address the gaps in our knowledge and advocate for people with long Covid, WHO/Europe announced an official partnership with Long COVID Europe, a network organisation that comprises 19 patient associations.  

Achieving three goals

The partnership has three goals – the 3Rs – calling upon governments and health authorities to focus on long Covid through greater:

  • Recognition and knowledge sharing, where all services are adequately equipped and no patient is left alone to navigate a system that is not prepared or not capable of recognising this debilitating condition;
  • Research and reporting through data gathering and reporting of cases, and well-coordinated research with the full participation of patients to understand the prevalence, causes and costs of long Covid; and 
  • Rehabilitation that is based on evidence and effectiveness and is safe for both patients and carers. 

“Leaving no one behind is more than just a tagline, and leaving people struggling with the consequences of their Covid-19 infections while others move on with their lives is not an option,” notes Dr Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, Director of Country Health Policies and Systems. “We are committed to working with long Covid patient associations, research institutions, public health authorities and governments to improve research and ensure that health services can support patients properly with their rehabilitation needs.” 

“While there is much we still need to learn about long Covid, especially how it presents in vaccinated versus unvaccinated populations and how it impacts reinfections, this data highlights the urgent need for more analysis, more investment, more support, and more solidarity with those who experience this condition,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “Millions of people in our Region, straddling Europe and central Asia, are suffering debilitating symptoms many months after their initial Covid-19 infection. They cannot continue to suffer in silence. Governments and health partners must collaborate to find solutions based on research and evidence.” 

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