2022-09-14| COVID-19

WHO Urges Action After Model Suggests Over 17 Million Europeans Experienced Long COVID

by Reed Slater
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A new model by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine for WHO/Europe suggests that at least 17 million people in the WHO Europe region experienced long COVID after COVID-19 infection in the first two years of the pandemic. In light of the staggering numbers, WHO is encouraging governments and organizations worldwide to raise awareness and research efforts to help understand and deal with long COVID. 

Long COVID’s Toll on Individuals and Society

WHO describes long COVID as a constellation of long-term symptoms that around 10-20% of people experience after COVID-19 infection. The most prevalent symptoms include fatigue, breathlessness, and cognitive dysfunction, which can linger indefinitely. 

While much of long COVID remains mysterious, WHO says that people with a severe COVID-19 infection requiring hospitalization are much more likely to experience long COVID. About one in three females and one in five males with a severe COVID-19 infection experience long COVID. Across the board, females are about twice as likely to experience long COVID, regardless of the initial case’s severity. 

Long COVID poses concerns because, on an individual level, the mental and physical distress it causes can inhibit a person’s ability to perform daily tasks effectively. Compounded by the roughly 145 million cases of long COVID IHME estimates that impacted people worldwide between 2020 and 2021, hundreds of millions of people may have difficulty getting back into an effective work routine while dealing with the effects of long COVID. 

Ann Li, Chair of Long COVID Europe, recounts her experience with long COVID, “My husband and I got COVID-19 in March 2020. I don’t have clear memories from that time, which the doctors think was probably due to a lack of oxygen, but all I remember is the pain, not being able to breathe, being very tired, and wanting to sleep all the time. The worst thing for me was the ongoing brain fog. … For a while I couldn’t even talk properly. I could only talk very slowly as it was so difficult to form sentences in my head.” 

In her new role at Long COVID Europe, Li is working with WHO to work with governments and health authorities worldwide to find better solutions to deal with the burden of long COVID. 

Related Article: U.S. Government to No Longer Provide Free COVID-19 Vaccines

A Desperate Need to Better Understand and Find Solutions to Long COVID

IHME’s modeling indicates a 307% increase of new long COVID cases between 2020 and 2021. The rapid growth is due to the number of confirmed cases in late 2020 and the explosion of cases in 2021, and while the numbers might not be swelling at the same rate as that time period, COVID-19 cases and long COVID cases continue to mount going into the end of 2022. 

In response to the rising number of long COVID cases and the ramifications it has and may continue to have on society, Long COVID Europe and WHO/Europe outlined a three-step process to begin a large-scale effort to deal with long COVID. The organizations deemed the goal the “3Rs.”

  • Recognition and knowledge sharing to spread awareness of long COVID.
  • Research and reporting data through coordinated programs to understand the causes, effects, costs, and prevalence of long COVID.
  • Rehabilitation programs that are based on evidence and effectiveness. 

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said, “For these goals to be achieved, we need all countries in the WHO European Region to recognize that long COVID is a serious problem with serious consequences and that it requires a serious response to stop the lives of those affected from getting any worse – and not just on a physical health level.”

The concerted effort from WHO/Europe to better understand and handle long COVID seems like a lofty goal considering the mysterious nature of the condition. Still, it is a problem worth considering if it is truly as prevalent and serious as the models suggest. With hundreds of millions already suffering from the effects of long COVID, at least a better understanding of the condition is worth pursuing to help individuals manage the symptoms. 

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