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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during the 72nd session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe on September 12, 2022 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

WHO Chief Demands 'Sustained Action' to Help Long Covid Patients

"Current estimates suggest that tens of millions, and perhaps more, have contracted long Covid," writes Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, "and about 15% of those diagnosed with the condition have experienced symptoms for at least 12 months."

Brett Wilkins

The head of the World Health Organization on Wednesday joined experts around the world in warning about the dangers of what's commonly called long Covid, the often devastating mid- to long-term symptoms the WHO estimates affect 10%-20% of people after they recover from an initial coronavirus infection.

"On behalf of the scientific community, health workers, and the patients with long Covid WHO has worked with, I urge all leaders to seriously ramp up support."

In a piece that's part of a Guardian series, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote that "while the pandemic has changed dramatically due to the introduction of many lifesaving tools, and there is light at the end of the tunnel, the impact of long Covid for all countries is very serious and needs immediate and sustained action equivalent to its scale."

"Crushing fatigue. Brain fog making straightforward tasks almost impossible. Shortness of breath walking up the stairs." These, wrote Tedros, are "just some of the many symptoms" people with long Covid are experiencing.

"Mostly data is only available from high-income countries, which means that we don't currently have a clear picture on how many people are actually suffering," he continued, but "current estimates suggest that tens of millions, and perhaps more, have contracted long Covid, and about 15% of those diagnosed with the condition have experienced symptoms for at least 12 months."

"On behalf of the scientific community, health workers, and the patients with long Covid WHO has worked with, I urge all leaders to seriously ramp up support," Tedros added, "so that we can minimize the suffering and improve the health of those affected so they can return to living their fullest lives."

Doctors in Australia told a federal parliamentary inquiry Wednesday that they are struggling to keep up with the demand caused by patients suffering from long Covid symptoms.

On the same day as the special parliamentary session, an Australian National University Center for Social Research and Methods/National Center for Epidemiology and Population Health survey revealed that 29% of respondents with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 experienced symptoms more than a month after infection. The study's authors estimated that 4.7% of Australian adults have experienced what the researchers call "post-Covid syndrome."

Another study of long Covid in Scotland published Wednesday in Nature Communications found that the risk of long Covid was greater among women, the elderly, people from economically disadvantaged communities, and those with preexisting physical and mental health ailments.

In an article published Tuesday in The Atlantic, Dr. Benjamin Mazer warned that what he calls "medium Covid" could pose an even greater acute health risk than long Covid.

"For the majority of vaccinated people," he wrote, "the worst complications will not surface in the early phase of disease, when you're first feeling feverish and stuffy, nor can the gravest risks be said to be 'long term.'"

"Rather, they emerge during the middle phase of post-infection, a stretch that lasts for about 12 weeks after you get sick," Mazer asserted. "This period of time is so menacing, in fact, that it really ought to have its own, familiar name: medium Covid."

The physician explained:

Even the most familiar maladies of "long Covid"—severe fatigue, cognitive difficulties, and breathing trouble—tend to be at their worst during the medium post-infection phase. An early analysis of symptom-tracking data from the U.K., the U.S., and Sweden found that the proportion of those experiencing Covid's aftereffects decreased by 83% four to 12 weeks after illness started.

The U.K. government also reported much higher rates of medium Covid, relative to long Covid: In its survey, 11% of people who caught the virus experienced lingering issues such as weakness, muscle aches, and loss of smell, but that rate had dropped to 3% by 12 weeks post-infection. The U.K. saw a slight decline in the number of people reporting such issues throughout the spring and summer; and a recent U.S. government survey found that about half of Americans who had experienced any Covid symptoms for three months or longer had already recovered.

"The pervasiveness of medium Covid does nothing to negate the reality of long Covid—a calamitous condition that can shatter people's lives," wrote Mazer.

However, he added that medium Covid can "mean a month or two of profound fatigue, crushing headaches, and vexing chest pain. It can lead to life-threatening medical complications. It needs recognition, research, and new treatments. For millions of people, medium Covid is as bad as it gets."

Experts stressed that the best way to avoid the dangers of any type of Covid-19 infection is to be fully vaccinated and boosted.

U.S. Covid-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha told reporters Tuesday that all vaccine-eligible people over the age of 12 should get the new Omicron boosters by the end of the month.

"If you are up to date with your vaccines and if you get treated if you have a breakthrough infection, your risk of dying from Covid is now close to zero," he said.

According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, only about 35% of people in the United States for whom boosters are recommended have received the shots, CNN reported Tuesday.

U.S. President Joe Biden was widely criticized last month for erroneously asserting that "the pandemic is over." Since then, thousands of people in the United States and tens of thousands more abroad have died from Covid-19, which all told has killed more than one million Americans and 6.5 million people around the world since late 2019.

Around 400 people still die each day from Covid-19 in the United States. Health experts are warning that emerging variants and waning immunity will likely drive an increase in infections and hospitalizations as autumn turns to winter in the Northern Hemisphere, where hospitals are also bracing for what many expect to be a severe influenza season.

"Don't wait. Get your new flu shot and get your new Covid shot today," Jha implored. "If Americans did that, we could save hundreds of lives each day this winter."

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