Two years since the Covid-19 pandemic began, more evidence is emerging about its long-term health impacts - often called Long Covid. Baz MacDonald breaks it down and looks at what it means for New Zealand and the world.
“To be clear, Long Covid is real,” Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said at the 1pm conference on September 30.
Long Covid is the term New Zealand uses for a range of long-term health impacts some people who have recovered from Covid-19 experience.
Around the world, this is also referred to as Chronic Covid Syndrome and Long-haul Covid.
Dr Bloomfield's comments come after new research found 37 percent of Covid-19 survivors experienced one or more health impacts between three and six months after recovering from the virus.
These patients often refer to themselves as Covid long haulers.
The research, from the University of Oxford and the UK National Institute for Health Research, show symptoms include abnormal breathing (19 percent), abdominal issues (16 percent), and fatigue (13 percent).
However, the most common symptom was depression and anxiety, with 23 percent of long haulers experiencing these.
Young people and women were the most likely groups to experience Long Covid symptoms, the paper showed. As well as those who experienced severe symptoms when infected with Covid-19.
And while people could experience long-term health impacts from contracting the Influenza virus, the paper found the occurrence of long-term impacts from Covid was significantly higher.
New Zealand’s Covid long haulers
Dr Anna Brooks is a Cellular Immunologist at the University of Auckland, and has been a vocal advocate for Long Covid sufferers in Aotearoa. She also runs a New Zealand Long Covid support group, called New Zealand Covid Long Haulers.
It has nearly 300 members, most who caught Covid during New Zealand’s first outbreak at the start of 2020.
The most common symptoms they discuss are neurological ones, like fatigue and brain fog, as well as the more commonly discussed Covid symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest pain.
“There are many people who haven’t been able to return to work because these are very difficult symptoms to deal with,” Dr Brooks said.
It’s also not clear from research or the experience of these long haulers how long these symptoms are likely to persist, Dr Brooks said.
For context, the new research from Oxford University and the UK National Institute for Health Research was the largest survey on Long Covid yet. It analysed the health records of 81 million patients, including over 270,000 Covid-19 survivors.
Dr Brooks: “There is a spectrum of recovery.”
“Most long haulers from March 2020 are still very sick, and experience relapses of symptoms or even new symptoms appearing. Within our group, that is a significant portion.”
“We have no idea even now whether someone might recover, or they will have symptoms long term," she said.
Why Long Covid is a huge health issue everywhere
So far, there have been 219 million cases of Covid-19 worldwide.
If one in three survivors will experience long-term health impacts as this paper suggests, the world is going to have a huge health challenge ahead of it, Dr Brooks said.
New Zealand’s elimination strategy has spared us the huge scale long-term health impacts, Dr Brooks said, but we still need to be prepared to treat people who do suffer from Long Covid in Aotearoa.
While Long Covid clinics in the UK and US have been overwhelmed by patients, Dr Brooks said NZ long haulers have had the opposite problem - with many encountering doctors unaware of these long-term symptoms or how to diagnose and treat them.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a conference on Long Covid planned for October 6. They are expected to present definitions for diagnosis of this condition.
“People tend to sideline it because it is difficult to diagnose. [The WHO definition] should help with that,” Dr Brooks said.
An ongoing issue with dealing with Long Covid will be understanding the scale of the issue, she said, particularly because countries around the world have been thorough in reporting new cases of Covid-19, but less so in tracking recovered cases or survivors experiencing long-term symptoms.
What we’re doing at home
In New Zealand, while we have tracked the number of recovered cases, it is not clear if we have kept a record of the number of people who have contracted and recovered from Covid-19 overseas before returning to New Zealand.
“Some people might be reluctant to even share that in New Zealand,” Dr Brooks said.
“There is a real stigma around getting Covid in New Zealand - which doesn’t exist elsewhere where Covid is prevalent.”
To deal with the long-term effects of Long Covid, more research is needed to understand how it presents, for how long, and how it can be treated, Dr Brooks said.
The Ministry of Health has commissioned a study to better understand the ongoing health impacts of long haulers in New Zealand.
But, in the short term, Dr Brooks said the high proportion of Long Covid sufferers should be an extra incentive for everyone to get vaccinated.
“You don’t hear people balancing the damage this virus can do to your body long term, with the very low harms we are seeing from the vaccine,” she said.
“The vaccine will help. If you get less symptoms from infection, you are going to get fewer Long Covid symptoms.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said most members of the New Zealand Long Covid support group caught the virus and recovered from it overseas. It has been updated to to say they caught it in New Zealand during the first outbreak last year.