Covid 19 coronavirus: Scientists warn the impact of ‘long Covid’ needs urgent attention

Scientists warn New Zealand’s healthcare system could be hit with an “ongoing burden” from people suffering “long Covid” – a “very real concern” needing urgent attention.

Overseas research has found months after being infected with the virus, people are experiencing crippling fatigue, “brain fog”, severe breathlessness, heart palpitations, chest pain, badly aching muscles or joints, depression, anxiety and hair loss.

Already, dozens of New Zealanders believed to have long Covid have come forward, prompting the launch of a Facebook group “New Zealand Covid long haulers”.

One of the biggest worries is that people might not even know they’ve had Covid and then end up suffering lung or heart issues down the track without

doctors knowing the link, University of Auckland immunologist Anna Brooks said.

Yet, any allocation of Government funding to research the long-term effects of Covid-19 in New Zealand is likely to be months away, despite overseas countries investing millions.

Research proposals are being considered and will be released publicly by the end of the month, a Ministry of Health spokesperson said.

Brooks said long-Covid research in New Zealand was crucial for a number of reasons including:

• Uncovering the prevalence of long Covid in New Zealand, especially within the returnees who may have been infected with the virus overseas but were never diagnosed.

• Developing a specialised test to give individuals certainty about whether or not they have had the virus.

• Understanding why patients are developing long-Covid symptoms by looking at the
mechanisms that may be causing the immune dysfunction.

• Monitoring and supporting New Zealanders who have had Covid and could be at risk of developing long-term conditions.

Brooks said New Zealand also had the advantage to test whether long-Covid sufferers developed immunity to the virus because much of the population was yet to be vaccinated.

She said surprisingly very few people understood that long-term, persisting symptoms from having had Covid is very real and it was concerning that its prevalence is still unknown in New Zealand.

“Long Covid is going to be an ongoing health burden and therefore research and support for New Zealanders suffering is urgent.

“While the focus in New Zealand is on eliminating the virus and the vaccine rollout, there is a fear that those suffering from Long Covid will be forgotten.”

Respiratory physician and senior lecturer in medicine at the University of Otago Dr Michael Maze echoed Brooks’ comments last month, saying the long-haulers’ plight is real.

He and his team have been following people in the Canterbury region who caught the virus during the first wave of the pandemic in order to assess their recovery.

“Talking to some people who’ve had these long symptoms, the … first thing they say is, ‘I’ve had a really hard time getting people to acknowledge that I’m sick here’.

“They feel there’s a perception that they should be better and that they’re not being taken seriously,” he said.

University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker said we needed to keep open-minded about the long-tail effects of Covid-19 as there were still many unknowns.

“While we are thinking it looks like the tail will diminish over time, there is no guarantee that there won’t be other effects that become worse with time.

“People thought once you recover from polio it was all over but then decades later people are turning up with this well-defined post-polio syndrome because polio destroyed a particular class of neuron in the spinal cord and the remaining neurons have been compensated … and as they get older it gets worse.”

But Baker says keeping the virus out of New Zealand and rolling out the vaccine should be priority and managing the consequence of the infection is not immediate and the urgency isn’t as high for New Zealand compared to other countries.

The Herald asked the Ministry of Health how urgent it felt this research was, what there was to consider, the type of research that could be conducted in New Zealand and when a decision on funding would be made. A spokesperson said: “While this process is ongoing there will be limits on the amount of information we can provide.”

Peggy's story

A year on from being struck with Covid-19, Peggy Mulligan still struggles to smell.

“Just the other day, I smelt petrol for the first time since getting the virus which was weird,” the 31-year-old told the Herald.

The New Zealander became infected with the virus in March last year while she was living in London.

She said her flatmate came home feeling under the weather and she thought he was hungover but it turned out to be Covid.

“He was really unwell for a week and we had an ambulance around to the flat at one stage because he couldn’t breathe but it turned out to be a panic attack. Emotions were high,” Mulligan said.

About 10 days later, Mulligan went down.

“I was just flat-out exhausted. Usually I do quite a bit of exercise but I didn’t do any that week … I had a whole lot of body aches and headaches but was still able to work from home.”

Mulligan said she recovered but then a week later she realised she couldn’t smell.

“My housemates were cooking bacon and I was in the kitchen and someone said ‘who’s cooking bacon’ and I thought that’s weird I can’t smell anything.

“Then, there was more and more in the media and one of the symptoms people had been experiencing was loss of smell so I tested myself by sniffing my perfume and toothpaste and couldn’t smell anything.

“It was really bizarre and it’s never really come back,” she said.

Mulligan said 100 per cent New Zealand research was needed into long Covid because while her symptoms were mild, other people’s were not, and there were still so many unknowns.

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