SCIENTISTS have warned of a surge in long Covid sufferers as a result of lockdown easing.
And it will be the younger populations that feel it the most, given their social and working lives expose them to the virus more and they are last in the queue for their jab.
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Initially some cases could arise as a result of unvaccinated youngsters mixing with friends from the spring onwards.
But in the future, Covid is expected to become more like a seasonal disease that causes mild symptoms, like the common cold.
And even the most mild of coronavirus infections can lead to long Covid in the fit, young and healthy.
Those affected are plagued with fatigue, muscle pain, headaches, hair loss and shortness of breath for several months after recovering from illness.
Experts envision the NHS will be burdened with a new problem – treating long Covid sufferers who complain of symptoms to GPs and at the special long Covid clinics.
Dr Julian Tang, an honorary associate professor at the University of Leicester and a consultant virologist, said the unlocking of restrictions seemed “reasonable”.
But he added: “What interests me most now is the possible gradual emergence of younger cases of Covid-19 in the as yet unvaccinated population, who may not need hospitalisation but who may still develop long Covid complications.
“This may shift the Covid-19 healthcare burden to outpatient settings like GPs and specialist ‘chronic fatigue’-like hospital clinics.
“And the extent of this burden will affect how we manage this virus in the longer-term as the virus becomes more seasonal.”
Dr Amitava Banerjee, a cardiologist at University College London which has the largest long Covid clinic, told The Sun: “The people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, if they get Covid and are not vaccinated, they are at risk of long Covid.
“If we don’t protect people as we open up again from a high infection rate, from what we know already we would expect to see higher rates of long Covid.
What are the main symptoms of long Covid?
A study in February found eight in ten people who have had the coronavirus still battle at least one long-term side effect lasting more than two weeks.
The analysis of all current evidence on the topic found more than 50 symptoms in so-called “long haulers”.
Researchers in the US ranked each symptom based on how common they were in the 47,910 patients studied.
The most common long Covid symptoms were:
Almost six in ten people suffer fatigue – severe tiredness – after recovering from Covid.
Some are dealing with fatigue 100 days after they first became unwell with the coronavirus.
Various studies have now found fatigue to be the most frequent and debilitating long Covid problem.
2. Mental disorders
Several “neuropsychiatric symptoms” – mental disorders linked with disease of the nervous symptom – were discovered by the research team.
These were headaches (44 per cent), attention disorder (27 per cent) and loss of smell (21 per cent).
They could be a result of the coronavirus directly impacting the brain, oxygen deprivation during Covid, medications, or the stress of having Covid – a deadly disease.
3. Hair loss
One in four people who previously had Covid report hair loss, which can be distressing.
“Hair loss could be considered as telogen effluvium”, the researchers said, which is when the hair cycle is distrubed.
It leads to more hair shedding and thinning, rather than complete baldness.
Someone may notice that more hair than usual is falling out when they wash or brush their hair, or find clumps on their pillow or in the drain.
It is usually caused by stress, poor diet, weight loss, a health condition, pregnancy, and the menopause, and typically affects women.
4. Shortness of breath
Shortness of breath – medically called dyspnea – was found in a quarter of Covid surviors.
And abnormalities in lung scans were seen in 35 per cent of patients, up to 100 days after sickness with the coronavirus.
Decreases in lung function were seen in 10 per cent.
Other common signs were:
- Loss of taste: 23 per cent
- Loss of smell: 21 per cent
- Post activity breathlessness: 21 per cent
- Joint pain: 19 per cent
- Cough: 19 per cent
- Sweat: 17 per cent
- Nausea or vomit: 16 per cent
- Chest pain: 16 per cent
- Memory loss: 16 per cent
- Hearing loss or tinnitus: 15 per cent
“And if you’ve got young people in their 20s to 50s who are off work for months, which is happening, even in the online working-from-home environment, that has not just a health impact, but an economic impact during a recession.
“The Office for National Statistics estimates 10 per cent of [people who have had Covid] may develop persistent symptoms. That is a huge amount of people.”
The NHS has already set up 60 clinics to help deal with so-called long haulers, bringing in doctors, nurses, psychologists and physiotherapists to try and treat the array of problems.
Dr Banerjee – whose research found even those with the mild Covid can suffer multiple organ damage months later – said: “To discount that as a burden on the NHS is a mistake.
“That puts a strain on hospitals in a different way to the acute Covid and deaths, because we have to investigate, do tests, do scans, find ways to understand and treat it.
“Those clinic slots – we have to either have to find more people and clinics, or take from other services for long term conditions.
“At the moment there is so much focus on vaccination, so much concentration on hospital ICU, that we are not giving enough importance to this.
“The message throughout has been to protect the NHS and save lives. But lives is not just about deaths, and the NHS is not just about acute care.”
Dr Banerjee said the solution is to get the infection level as low as possible – which will not be possible with vaccines alone.
Official modelling given to the Prime Minister showed that there will be another wave of cases in the summer, regardless of how slowly the lockdown is lifted.
And if the virus becomes a seasonal problem – causing mild cases every winter – a significant proportion of the population could be infected each year, and thousands of them could get long Covid.
The PM said it won’t be possible for the UK to eradicate coronavirus, as is the case in other countries like New Zealand.
Dr Banerjee said he “can’t believe” the prospect of zero Covid – where the aim is to get cases to zero – is still being debated.
“The idea that the horse has bolted on better suppressing infections – I disagree with that.”
Dr Tang said long Covid will “impact how we assess the cost-benefit of updating future Covid-19 vaccines”.
They will be needed to prevent severe diseases and death in the elderly and vulnerable – “but also for the younger working population who may be at more risk of long Covid-19 complications”, Dr Tang said.