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Long covid becoming a new reality

Wairarapa residents are at risk of long covid. PHOTO/STOCK.ADOBE.COM

Although daily covid infections are declining, we could soon be facing a related health risk.

Epidemiologist Professor Roger Morris said Wairarapa could be impacted by many cases of long covid.

“As Wairarapa approaches 6000 total covid cases, we can expect to see substantial numbers of cases of long covid. It is too early in the Omicron phase of the pandemic to determine whether this strain will cause more or fewer cases of long covid,” Morris said.

The Ministry of Health [MoH] reported more than 6000 people had been infected with covid in Wairarapa.

Masterton-based Morris expected the first cases to appear over the coming months. He hoped Wairarapa’s high vaccination rate would mitigate the potential long covid impact.

“It’s not possible to tell if a person has long covid until three months post infection,” he said.

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As with much of the impact of covid, people vary in susceptibility.

“Being fit and healthy before exposure to the virus is no protection if you carry some of the known susceptibility genes,” he said.

Data from Britain showed large numbers there affected.

“In the UK in early February 2022, the Office of National Statistics estimated from regular data collection on covid cases 1.3 million people were suffering from long covid at that date.”

The definition of the disease included still suffering noticeable effects three months or more after initial infection.

Common symptoms included fatigue, shortness of breath, post-exercise exhaustion and cognitive dysfunction. The condition has about 200 different identified effects found so far.

“A lot of people have become incapacitated by long covid,” Morris said.

‘Brain fog’ was a common feature. This involved common, simple tasks becoming difficult to manage.

A MoH spokesperson said fatigue was the most reported enduring symptom.

“More serious long-term complications have been reported but appear to be less common. These include inflammation of the heart muscle, lung function abnormalities, and acute kidney injury,” a spokesperson said.

“It appears to be more common among people with more severe initial symptoms but can also affect those who initially had mild or moderate covid-19. This includes young adults with no pre-existing medical conditions. Long covid is seen in all age groups, including children.”

Morris said the disease could present as a continuation of the initial infection, or appear after people had recovered.

“A lot of people have become incapacitated by long covid. Cases can range from being a nuisance, to being quite severe,” he said.

The World Health Organisation’s [WHO] clinical definition of long covid is: ‘Post covid-19 condition occurs in individuals with a history of probable or confirmed SARS CoV-2 infection, assessed three months from the onset of covid-19, with symptoms that last for at least two months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis.’

Symptoms could fluctuate or relapse over time according to the WHO. Data from 81 studies found 32 per cent of people diagnosed with covid were still experiencing fatigue 12 weeks later, while 22 per cent had cognitive impairments after 12 weeks.

“Some remain affected a year after the acute phase of the disease,” Morris said.

Cases could also occur in people who tested positive, but did not think they were ill when initially infected with covid.

Morris said the only sure way of reducing the risk of becoming a case of long covid was to be vaccinated before exposure to the virus.

“Fifteen studies have shown that double vaccinated people who get infected with covid have half the risk of getting long covid compared with unvaccinated people,” he said.

Double vaccinated people with long covid had 54 per cent fewer headaches, 64 per cent less fatigue, and 68 per cent less occurrence of muscle and joint pain than unvaccinated cases.

“The reduction in severity of long covid associated with prior vaccination is greater in older people than the young.”

He said that unvaccinated people who got covid, could get protection against long covid by being vaccinated after the event.

“People who get vaccinated after experiencing long covid are more likely to show subsequent improvement and less likely to be worse affected than before they were vaccinated.

“If you do get covid and are unvaccinated, you will develop useful immunity from the infection, but this will be boosted significantly if you then get vaccinated,” he said.

  • MoH advice about long covid is at https://www.health.govt.nz/covid-19-novel-coronavirus/covid-19-health-advice-public/about-covid-19/long-covid

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